Iafallo's last-minute goal lifts Minnesota Duluth past Harvard in Frozen Four semifinal

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Luke Esposito’s shot hits the crossbar in the final seconds of the third period (photo: Jim Rosvold).

CHICAGO — In a game that many might have describe as lackluster, the ending to the opener of the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four between Minnesota Duluth and Harvard was anything but.

Bulldogs forward Alex Iafallo brought the partisan Duluth crowd to its feet with 26.6 seconds remaining, redirecting a feed from Willie Raskob through Harvard goaltender Merrick Madsen’s legs to break a 1-1 deadlock.

[scg_html_ff2017]Seemingly poised to advance to the national title game, Minnesota Duluth then had to withstand a final barrage from the Crimson that included not one, but two shots that clanged off iron.

The first, with 14.2 seconds remaining, hit the crossbar off the stick of Sean Malone as he tried to roof a rebound over a fallen Hunter Miska (39 saves).

Then, after Harvard intercepted a clearing pass and cycled the puck around the points and to the slot, Luke Esposito fired a hard wrist shot off the right post with 5.5 seconds left, allowing the Bulldogs to finally push the puck to safety and begin the celebration of a 2-1 victory.

“I think [defenseman Nick] Wolff said he got a piece with his knee,” said a relaxed Miska about the game’s final shot. “It’s all good.”

The wild flurry was the conclusion to a game where finding any sort of open space was difficult. Although the teams combined for 79 shots on goal, the majority of them were from well outside the Grade A area.

“I think pretty much every bit of ice was hard to get out there,” said Harvard coach Ted Donato. “I thought neither team really had a lot of zone time.”

“We knew that [it would be a defensive battle,” said Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin. “They’re a good defensive team. They’re a good transition team.

“I didn’t think in the neutral zone, for us, I didn’t think we spread the rink out enough.”

While the ending was thrilling, the third period had a bit of controversy earlier.

Harvard believed it had scored the go-ahead goal about halfway through the period but the referee on the goal line immediately signaled no goal, ruling he had lost sight of the puck. After a short video review, the referees upheld that decision.

Donato said that the referee explained that there was no audio available on the video review, something confirmed by the NCAA, citing a technical glitch. Regardless, the referee determined that his intent was to blow the play dead when he believed Miska had the puck frozen and thus determined that his on-ice call stood.

Donato was diplomatic when asked about the play.

“I think watching it on the replay it looked like the puck was in before he was able to blow the whistle,” said Donato. “The explanation I was given was that there was no audio on the replay. He thought the goalie at one point had it underneath his glove, and in his mind that’s when the play was over.

“I think everybody’s trying to do their best. They went to the replay to try to get it correct. So obviously through my Harvard-colored glasses, it looked like a good goal. But everybody’s trying to do their best out there.”

Each team struck in the opening 20 minutes, a period that Duluth dominated territorially at 5-on-5 but was subjected to having to kill three minor penalties.

On the third of those penalties, Harvard struck with Adam Fox and Alexander Kerfoot working the puck low and across the seam to Tyler Moy, who buried a quick shot before Miska could get positioned.

Duluth, however, evened the game late. After Dominic Toninato won an offensive zone draw, Joey Anderson fired a quick shot that banked off Harvard’s Jacob Olsen and handcuffed Madsen (36 saves), bouncing over his glove.

“Anytime you get a goal later in a period, it certainly gave us a boost,” said Sandelin, noting that it made his team feel much better about what he thought was a good period. “I think our intensity level was good. We had some real good time in the offensive zone. But yet we hadn’t scored.”

That, however, closed the scoring until the game’s whirlwind final minute, one whose outcome sent Minnesota Duluth to the national title game for the second time in seven years. The Bulldogs won the championship in 2011.

“It’s a great experience for those guys, for everybody, fans included, to be able to stay and play for a national championship,” said Sandelin. “I’m obviously very proud of our team right now. And hopefully we can take one more step.”

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