BUFFALO, NY — Minnesota-Duluth thought they had taken the first lead of the game when Cole Koepke snapped a scoreless tie just over a minute into the second period. To the Bulldogs’ dismay, however, officials negated the marker which was initially ruled a goal on the ice.
The no-goal only light a fire under the defending champions, though, who came storming back with a fury.
Moments after being denied the lead, Richards scored one that would not be taken back before Billy Exell snapped a one-all tie with 9:53 remaining in regulation as the second-ranked University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs added two empty-net goals in the final 30 seconds en route to a 4-1 victory over No. 11 Providence in the NCAA Ice Hockey Frozen Four semifinals at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
Minnesota-Duluth (28-11-2), which received 28 saves from goaltender Hunter Shepard and a pair of third-period empty-netters from Richards and Dylan Samberg, will make a third straight NCAA finals appearance. It awaits the winner of Denver/Massachusetts in the NCAA Frozen Four final slated for 8pm, Saturday, April 13 at KeyBank Center.
“Obviously, you don’t like to see that,” Koepke, Minnesota’s freshman phenom said of the waved off goal. “But we battled back, stayed even-keeled and we did it. It’s huge — National Championships — it can be a little overwhelming but we’re going back again!”
“You can take it one of two ways: you can deflate or you can look at it like we did and do something right to get next the goal,” Samberg, who was ruled to have made contact with Providence goalie Hayden Hawkey, negating the first goal, said. “It’s hard to say as a player. I’m a little biased but I’m not a referee and that’s the call they made. An unlucky little bounce, we just dealt with it. As long as we continued to produce scoring chances and keep the puck out of our end we liked our chances.”
Dealt with it the Bulldogs did, producing the next goal in fine fashion off the stick of Richards just 3:19 later with assists from Parker Mackay and Matt Anderson to stake claim to a 1-0 lead.
Undeterred, Providence (24-12-6) battled back to tie it at 1-1 when Josh Wilkins finished in close on the power play to get the Friars back into the mix. The goal, which came 11:17 into the second period, sent both teams into the locker rooms for the second intermission deadlocked at one.
“This program is unbelievable. The standard here is very high and every player comes in and tries to meet those expectations,” Samberg said. “It’s an honor to be here. The coaching staff, the leadership, everyone knows what the culture here is about and wants to win.”
With the game on the line in the third and final frame, Minnesota-Duluth took that sentiment to heart and scored what proved to the game-winning goal when Exell found the back of the net 10:07 in. The Bulldogs kept the pressure on but Hawkey (32 saves) kept Minnesota at bay until the senior netminder was pulled in favor of an extra attacker the final minute of regulation.
The ploy did not pay off for the Friars, however, as Samberg found the back of the net — and a little redemption — when his clearing attempt sailed high off the glass and fortuitously into the vacant cage with 32.8 seconds left. Richards added his second of the game and 12th of the season with 5.6 ticks left.
“It’s how our team is built,” longtime Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin, in his 19th season at the helm, said. “We’re built with balance. Every guy on our team has an importance and a role. Every player has a value on this team.”
After the tilt, Providence held their heads high.
“It was a really good game, kind of the game we expected,” Providence head coach Nate Leaman said. “I thought we played a very good second period, built some momentum throughout the game, thought we had the game in a good place in the third period, but we didn’t capitalize on the 5-on-3 and they came right back and pinned us in, lost coverage there and that was pretty much the game. Two pretty good teams going at it and it just came down to a bounce.”
“It was an awesome experience being here in Buffalo for the Frozen Four,” Sabres’ 2017 fourth round draft pick Jacob Bryson said. “As a team, we expect to score on those 5-on-3’s. It kind of hurt a bit, but we stayed positive, stick with it and had a couple good shifts after that. I’m disappointed but we’ve got something special going on here.”
Sandelin said winning never gets old.
“It’s hard, it’s extremely difficult and tonight’s game was a very, very hard hockey game” Sandelin said. “I can’t say enough about our players. I’m so excited for them to have the opportunity again. You’re always excited for your seniors to play the last game of the year and have a chance to win (the National Championship and it’s a great learning experience for our younger players. More importantly, it’s tremendous for our program and our university to be in this position. I know I’ve said it a number of times, but I don’t take it for granted and I don’t want our players to. I want them to really enjoy it and relish it. We’re really looking forward to having a chance to play on Saturday.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
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