Goaltending Carries Minnesota-Duluth to WCHA Play-In Game Win

ST. PAUL - The end of the season didn't work out very well for the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. Knowing they were in position to earn home-ice advantage for the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs, and possibly lock up a bid to the upcoming NCAA Tournament, UMD instead put everything in doubt.

The Bulldogs finished the season 1-3-2, including a two-game home sweep at the hands of ninth-place Alaska-Anchorage on the last weekend of the season. Instead of finishing as high as third, UMD finished seventh in the tightly-packed WCHA. Sometimes, however, you can make people forget about your mistakes by how you respond to them.

In three WCHA playoff games, UMD has yet to trail for even one second. The Bulldogs went to Colorado Springs last weekend and swept the fourth-seeded Colorado College Tigers, outscoring them 7-2 and not allowing an even-strength goal.

Thursday night, the Bulldogs found a way to win again. They overcame a 40-shot barrage from rival Minnesota, and held on to beat the Gophers 2-1 in the play-in game for the 2009 WCHA Final Five. Junior goalie Alex Stalock (San Jose) made 39 saves for UMD. The game was played before a crowd of 17,611 at XCel Energy Center in St. Paul.

With the win, UMD advances to play top-seed North Dakota at 8pm Eastern Friday. Denver faces Wisconsin in the other semifinal.

Key to keeping UMD in the game was a tight defense that kept much of Minnesota's offense on the perimeter. The Gophers couldn't generate much consistent pressure during the long stretches of five-on-five play Thursday. Not until the third period did they really get to put the pedal to the metal.

Thanks to UMD's defense and the work of Stalock in goal, the Gophers never got the equalizer. In fact, they were held without a shot in the hectic final three minutes, as UMD was able to generate forecheck pressure. Once Minnesota pulled freshman goaltender Kent Patterson (Colorado), the Bulldogs kept them from being able to set up in the offensive zone.

Senior MacGregor Sharp (undrafted) tallied his 21st goal of the season for the Bulldogs, stuffing a rebound from defenseman Evan Oberg (undrafed) past sophomore goalie Alex Kangas (Atlanta). Kangas - who has been sick all week - was pulled after the first period in favor of Patterson.

The ever-important Pairwise Rankings show UMD tied for 11th after Thursday's win, while Minnesota falls to 14th. If the season were cut off right now, Minnesota would make the NCAA Tournament. However, if there are any upsets in the WCHA, CCHA, ECACHL, or Hockey East tournaments, the Gophers could easily have played their last game Thursday night.

It was something Minnesota coach Don Lucia spoke about Tuesday, knowing his team might make the field either way. He talked about how it "might be better" to lose one game Thursday instead of two Friday and Saturday. However, he also knew a loss Thursday would leave them rooting for top seeds in other tournaments.

UMD's third straight win, meanwhile, does not lock them in. There are many scenarios in which the Bulldogs would be left out of the tournament. If they want to be breathing heading into the final games Saturday, UMD needs one more win. It could come Friday night against North Dakota, or if not then, Saturday afternoon in the Final Five third-place game.

Goaltending Carries Minnesota-Duluth to WCHA Play-In Game Win originally appeared on NHL FanHouse on Fri, 20 Mar 2009 10:05:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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