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MINNEAPOLIS — Coming into this weekend, Minnesota-Duluth was seeking to better assure its NCAA tournament chances by winning at least one game in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at the Target Center. The Bulldogs were facing North Dakota, which had beaten Duluth four times during the regular season.
However, after falling behind early Friday, Duluth rallied, emerging with a 4-2 win to advance to Saturday’s Frozen Faceoff championship game.
See the tournament bracket and get links to schedules and stories at NCHC Playoff Central.
North Dakota got the start it wanted, scoring on its first shot of the game when Nick Schmaltz’s one-timer from the right faceoff circle beat Kasimir Kaskisuo clean at just 49 seconds of the period. Drake Caggiula and Brock Boeser got assists.
“I thought we started the right way, had an early goal, and we got momentum right away, but they came back and had a good push there,” said North Dakota coach Brad Berry. “It was two good teams playing good hockey there. It was a hard, heavy game. I have to congratulate Duluth.”
In the second period, it was Duluth that struck quickly, as Dominic Toninato got off a quick shot from low in the left faceoff circle that beat Cam Johnson short side at just 28 seconds.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the start we wanted getting down,” said Toninato. “Every line had it going at the start of the second, and we went from there.”
The second then took an interesting turn, with Duluth scoring two goals right after North Dakota missed on golden chances. First, right after Kaskisuo robbed Rhett Gardner from in close, Alex Iafallo got into the slot and redirected a Willie Raskob shot five-hole past Johnson at 3:46. The goal was initially set up by Adam Johnson, who made a great feed from the right boards across the slot to Raskob.
“Kas has played tremendous for us all year,” said Toninato. “It’s good we can finally start getting some wins for him. He keeps us in every hockey game. That’s what we ask from our goalie. He’s a huge part of our team going forward.”
Next, Drake Caggiula had a golden chance when he was sprung alone in the slot off a pass from the boards, but he shot high, and just after that, Austin Farley got in front in the slot and tipped a Willie Corrin blast top shelf glove side past Johnson at 12:24.
“I wasn’t surprised that they were going to make a push,” said Berry. “Obviously, having the lead going into the second period, the other team comes out and makes a push. They have big, heavy players and whip the puck at the net. They scored a goal on their first shift. It’s a game of opportunities and a game of inches, and we came up a little bit short. I’m very proud of our group the way we responded.”
North Dakota quickly put itself back in the game, however. Off a long shift when Duluth failed to tip a couple of North Dakota passes out of the zone, and with North Dakota relentlessly forechecking, Troy Stecher ripped a slap shot from a few strides in from the right point that beat Kaskisuo five-hole at 15:00.
The third period was played curiously defensively from both teams. With 13 minutes gone, the shots on goal were only 3-2 for Duluth. The Bulldogs gave themselves a cushion when Toninato picked up a huge rebound at the top of the slot and ripped a slap shot top shelf glove side past Johnson at 14:02.
North Dakota pulled Johnson with over two minutes left but was unable to get any pressure, and for the third year in a row fell in the Frozen Faceoff semifinals.
“It’s playing good teams,” said North Dakota defenseman Gage Ausmus about North Dakota’s 0-3 record in the Frozen Faceoff semifinals. “It’s getting chances. This time of year it’s teams playing well and playing their game. They got the bounces that we got earlier in the year. It could have gone either way. I don’t think there’s a reason why we’ve been losing. We come prepared and focused.”
Duluth awaits the winner of St. Cloud State and Denver.
“It feels good,” said Sandelin. “I’m happy for our team and I’m happy for our players, and they’ve stayed the course.”