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In a game that both coaches felt had its sloppy moments, No. 3 Minnesota Duluth defeated No. 8 Western Michigan, 5-2, in first semifinal of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Adam Johnson had three assists and goalie Hunter Miska made 24 saves.
“We won,” said Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin somewhat sarcastically when asked about the game. “It wasn’t probably the prettiest game for either team, but like this group has done all year they stayed with games and got a big goal to make it 3-2. I thought we were carrying momentum in the third period; we didn’t start great, but we stayed with it.”
Western Michigan had a golden chance early with a five-on-three power play for over a minute, but couldn’t get anything going, struggling even to penetrate the zone.
“We didn’t execute very well,” said Western Michigan coach Andy Murray. “We were not sharp. It’s really interesting; sometimes you get a power play early in the game and you haven’t really gotten into the game yet and I think those happen in the first five minutes or so. I just didn’t think we were sharp with our puck movement and never really got it set up the way we wanted to.”
Instead, Minnesota Duluth scored first on a power play at 13:09. Alex Iafallo drove the slot and got a backhand off that Ben Blacker stopped, but the rebound came to Dominic Toninato at the left post, and Toninato lifted it into the open net.
“It wasn’t scripted,” laughed Sandelin. “Our guys did a great job. What can you say about the killers; they were aggressive, we didn’t give up too many opportunities. It’s not an ideal way to start, but that gave us a lift killing that off.”
The goal seemed to open up play for both teams, with Western Michigan getting a couple of good shots on net, and Duluth countering. However, an errant clear by a Duluth player that went up the slot was picked up by Broncos’ defenseman Taylor Fleming near the top of the slot, and he beat Miska with a quick wrist shot top shelf at 16:34 to tie it 1-1.
However, it didn’t stay tied for long, as Kyle Osterberg dove for a loose puck in the slot and whipped a quick wrist shot past Blacker at 16:58.
The second period saw a lot of momentum changes. Western Michigan started off on a power play, but couldn’t capitalize. Frederik Tiffels had appeared to tie the score 2-2, but the goal was overturned for goalie interference due to an incidental bump by Matheson Iacopelli as he tried to spin behind Miska to the far post. The Broncos however, shook that off and tied it when Colt Conrad picked up a rebound at the left post and lifted it past Miska at 7:10.
“As a coach I’ve been in those situations a few times, probably a few hundred times, but to me I must have said 10 times, ‘Guys, it doesn’t matter,’ ” said Murray of the disallowed goal and his team’s response. “They’ll call it, we’re playing hard, we go right after them the next shift; just keep playing hard, because at that point we were playing really well and had a lot of pressure on them.”
The Broncos got some good pressure after the tying goal, and had several good chances, but Miska held the fort and then Parker Mackay got the puck deep in the Bulldogs zone and banked it off the boards to Iafallo near the Western Michigan blue line. Iafallo flew down the right side boards and ripped a wrist shot top corner at 16:16 to make it 3-2 Minnesota Duluth.
“Well, I think their second goal woke our bench up for sure,” said Sandelin. “I thought we played better toward the end of the period and got a goal and tried to carry that over into the third. We have to get better in the second periods. You know teams are going to make a push when they’re trailing.”
After spending much of the third period seemingly playing defensive, prevent hockey and not pushing to get a second goal, Minnesota Duluth struck like lighting when Johnson raced up the left side on a two-on-one with Mackay. Johnson carried the puck deep and held it until a Western Michigan defender who was sliding on his stomach to block a pass went past him, then took one stride back toward the blue line and fed Mackay at the far post, who redirected it past a helpless Blacker at 14:58 for the two-goal lead.
Western got a four-on-three power play opportunity after the goal, and after Duluth killed it pulled Blacker for the extra attacker, but Jared Thomas scored an empty-netter to seal the win.
Duluth will play the winner of Denver-North Dakota in the championship, while Western Michigan will face the loser of that game in the consolation game at Target Center.
“It’s huge; that’s what you want coming into a Friday night game, the opportunity to play for a championship,” said Iafallo. “It’s very important to us and we have to carry it over to tomorrow.”