A national champion reasserting itself, a third-place game that held more importance than usual, and a night of scoreboard-watching for a couple of programs awaiting to hear their NCAA tournament fate.
All those converged in a busy Saturday at Xcel Energy Center as the NCHC Frozen Faceoff made its first appearance in St. Paul.
By the end of the night, defending NCAA champion Denver had won the tournament title, beating top-ranked St. Cloud State in the final in front of an announced crowd of 11,327. And earlier, North Dakota beat Minnesota Duluth 4-1 for third place, before both had to wait out the evening, with Bulldogs making the NCAA field and the Fighting Hawks missing out.
“I’m really proud of our group,’’ said Denver coach Jim Montgomery, who got 28 saves from tournament MVP Tanner Jaillet. “We were relentless. … After we scored that first goal, we started to play Denver hockey.’’
The Pioneers’ Kohen Olischefski scored 4 minutes 24 seconds into the first period and Jake Durflinger made it 2-0 with six seconds left in first to send Denver on its way.
“If we hang on for five more seconds,’’ St. Cloud State defenseman Jimmy Schuldt said, “it could be a different game.’’
Instead, Denver used that lift and stretched the lead to 3-0 on Ryan Barrow’s goal 2:06 into the second. That prompted Huskies coach Bob Motzko, looking for a spark, to pull goalie David Hrenak in favor of Jeff Smith. “He really wasn’t at fault for them; they were kind of fluky goals,’’ Motzko said.
The Huskies cut it to 3-1 on Ryan Poehling’s goal with 4:06 left in the third, but Denver’s Dylan Gambrell scored with 2:54 left to seal the victory.
The loss didn’t hurt St. Cloud State’s NCAA tournament seeding. The Huskies (25-8-6) will be the No. 1 overall seed and likely be sent to the West Regional in Sioux Falls on Friday and Saturday. Denver (22-9-8) will be the No. 5 seed.
Saturday’s drama started in the third-place game, with both North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth looking to bolster their NCAA hopes.
Cam Johnson made 27 saves, and Austin Poganski and Ludvig Hoff each had a goal and an assist as North Dakota (17-13-10) won to end an eight-game losing streak to the Bulldogs (21-16-3), including last year’s NCHC title game.
“Finally,’’ Poganski said. “They’ve had our number for a while. We knew we were due.’’
But the Fighting Hawks’ chances of making the NCAA tournament for the 16th consecutive year ended Saturday night when Boston University beat Providence to win the Hockey East tournament.
Minnesota Duluth (21-16-3) advanced by moving ahead of the Gophers to No. 12 after Notre Dame edged Ohio State 3-2 in overtime in the Big Ten final. Had Ohio State won, Minnesota Duluth would have been eliminated.
“We put ourselves in a tough spot here, needing help from other teams,’’ Bulldogs captain Karson Kuhlman said before the night’s results rolled in.
The NCHC is the only Division I conference that plays a third-place game, and it benefited North Dakota — at least for a while. “There’s always been speculation about keeping or not keeping it,’’ North Dakota coach Brad Berry said. “Tonight, I’m glad we had it.’’
Along with MVP Jaillet, the all-tournament team included Denver forwards Henrik Borgstrom and Logan O’Connor and defenseman Ian Mitchell, and St. Cloud State forward Nick Poehling and defenseman Jack Ahcan.