WCHA Final Five: Stalock Leads Minnesota-Duluth to Title Game

ST. PAUL - For Minnesota-Duluth, the task is relatively simple. The Bulldogs could have made the NCAA Tournament without winning another game, but to do so would involve certain scenarios not playing out in other conference tournaments. To ensure themselves of a spot in the field of 16, UMD needed one more win. It wouldn't matter much if that win came in Friday's semifinals, or in Saturday's third-place game.

Why wait? UMD got the win they needed Friday night, beating WCHA top seed North Dakota 3-0 in front of a very boisterous, somewhat bi-partisan crowd of 17,729 at XCel Energy Center. Junior goalie Alex Stalock (San Jose) stopped all 31 shots he faced. UMD has now allowed three goals in four playoff games this year (all wins).

Less than two minutes in, UMD junior goalie Alex Stalock (San Jose) had to awkwardly cover a loose puck in the crease. With Stalock's propensity to play the puck, and his uncanny ability (by goalie's standards) to do it, there are sometimes incidents where he makes the simple look like a SportsCenter highlight. UMD then had the game's first big chance. A Jack Connolly (undrafted) shot was stopped by North Dakota freshman goalie Brad Eidsness (Buffalo), but he left a huge rebound for sophomore Justin Fontaine (undrafted), UMD's leading scorer. Fontaine pushed the puck high over the goal.

Eidnesss apparently watches Stalock and admires him, because at the start of a North Dakota power play, Eidsness went behind the North Dakota net to settle the puck down. He didn't look behind him, or he would have seen UMD senior MacGregor Sharp (undrafted) being the closest one to him. Eidsness touched the puck, then went to head back into the net, but Sharp took the puck and wrapped it around to the other side of the goal for his 22nd goal of the season. The short-handed goal seemed to stun the Sioux, and they never really got that power play going.

"Getting the first goal is huge, so we can get into our style of play," said Sharp, who has ten goals in his last ten games.

"That's our goal, to get the first goal and set the tempo," said Stalock. "We don't look back once we get the lead. The last wins have been a great team effort."

With momentum on their side, UMD pounced. Fontaine set up defenseman Josh Meyers (Los Angeles) at the left point. His shot was stopped by Eidsness, who again left a huge rebound. He wasn't so lucky this time, as sophomore defenseman Mike Montgomery (undrafted) jammed it in the net for just his second career goal.

UMD controlled much of the first period, leading 2-0 at the intermission. The Bulldogs didn't look like a team that played an intense, one-goal game Thursday night. Instead, they looked like a fresh, focused, intense hockey team. North Dakota, meanwhile, looked a tad rusty, and they were obviously shaken by the Eidsness miscue that led to UMD's first goal.

"I felt we did not out-battle our opponent in the first period," said North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol, who has taken his team to four straight NCAA Frozen Fours.

North Dakota got a huge break in the second, as UMD freshman defenseman Brady Lamb (undrafted) picked up a five-minute major for a knee-to-knee hit on North Dakota's Matt Watkins (Dallas). North Dakota got four shots, but could not score on the power play. The Sioux had two more power-play chances in the second, generating a total of ten shots on net in three power plays, but still trailed 2-0 after two periods of play.

The Sioux had some great chances early in the third, but got nothing to show for it, much like most of the game. Freshman Mike Connolly (undrafted) popped in an empty-net goal from the red line to give UMD a 3-0 lead with 1:53 to go.

"We knew going in we had to play a better 60-minute game (than Thursday)," said UMD head coach Scott Sandelin. "I can't say enough about our penalty killers. It was a great team effort tonight."

Stalock's amazing performance in this tournament continued in the third period. He got some help a couple times, as North Dakota players were flat-out missing the puck in some grade-A opportunities. But it's as the old saying goes, "You make your own luck". Stalock won't remind anyone of Martin Brodeur with his fundamentals, but he can get from post to post as quickly as anyone. He has been superb in these first two games, and his defenseman have been very good, too.

UMD moves into Saturday night's championship against Denver. No team has ever won three games in three days to take the WCHA Final Five championship. Then again, not many teams can boast going through four straight tough playoff games without once being behind on the scoreboard. That's what UMD has done, and their reward is their first shot at the Broadmoor Trophy (WCHA playoff champion) since 1985.

WCHA Final Five: Stalock Leads Minnesota-Duluth to Title Game originally appeared on NHL FanHouse on Fri, 20 Mar 2009 23:20:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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