When the calendar turns to March, and April, too, Hunter Shepard and the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs know it’s time to shine.
Nick Swaney scored 7:29 into the second overtime and Shepard made 37 saves as the defending national champion Bulldogs defeated No. 1-ranked St. Cloud State 3-2 on Saturday night in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship game in front of 10,621 at Xcel Energy Center.
“I’m really proud of our guys, and it’s certainly exciting to win this championship,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. “It didn’t look so good early, but our guys stuck with it and kind of grinded through it.”
Swaney’s goal, which came on a 2-on-1 rush with Tanner Laderoute, sent UMD (25-11-2) to its second NCHC playoff title and denied the top-ranked Huskies (30-5-3) their second. Shepard, the NCHC goalie of the year, played the starring role by making 27 saves through regulation and all 10 he faced in the 27:39 of overtime on his way to the tournament’s most outstanding player honors.
Entering Saturday, Shepard had allowed only six goals in his previous seven playoff games. No opponent in the span, which included four NCAA wins, had scored more than one goal against Shepard.
The Bulldogs forced overtime with 6:34 left in the third period on a shorthanded goal by fourth-line winger Billy Exell, pulling UMD into a 2-2 tie with the Huskies.
For a while, it appeared St. Cloud State would win its second NCHC playoff title, because Hobey Baker Award candidate Patrick Newell scored a power-play goal 28 seconds into the third period to break a 1-1 tie. And the Huskies got their sixth power-play chance with 6:34 left, before Exell changed things.
“That was one hell of a hockey game,” St. Cloud State coach Brett Larson said. “Two great hockey teams getting after it.”
Entering Saturday’s game, the Huskies and Bulldogs — and WCHA tournament champion Minnesota State Mankato, too — already had secured top-four spots in the PairWise Ratings, the formula the NCAA uses to pick and seed its 16-team field. That means Minnesota will have an unprecedented three teams among the four No. 1 regional seeds when the NCAA reveals its tournament matchups on Sunday (6 p.m., ESPNU).
St. Cloud State will be the No. 1 overall seed for the second consecutive year and is expected to be placed in the West Regional in Fargo, which will be played Friday and Saturday. Minnesota Duluth is No. 2 and Minnesota State Mankato No. 3 in the PairWise, and their regional assignments will be determined Sunday. The other regionals are in Allentown, Pa. (Midwest), Manchester, N.H. (Northeast) and Providence (East).
“We’ve been pretty focused and pretty driven,” Newell said, “and we have that bigger goal in mind.”
The Huskies struck for a 1-0 lead at 7:45 of the first, with Robby Jackson scoring on a rebound. Minnesota Duluth responded on a four-on-four situation when defenseman Scott Perunovich fed Mikey Anderson, who skated in and blasted a shot past Huskies goalie David Hrenak to tie the score 1-1 at 10:49.
The score remained tied until early in the third, when Newell collected the puck between his skates, spun and fired a shot over Shepard’s shoulder for a 2-1 Huskies lead.
St. Cloud State appeared to take a 3-1 lead with 9:38 left in the third on a goal by Blake Lizotte. However, a replay review showed the puck did not cross the goal line, and the goal was wiped out.
Then came Exell’s goal, which started when Laderoute intercepted a Huskies pass and fed Exell for the equalizer.