After being ranked No. 1 in the country for 11 weeks this season, three ties in February helped cost Minnesota Duluth its first regular-season conference title since the Bulldogs last won the WCHA in 1993.
But on Saturday they'll have a chance to hoist their first-ever NCHC playoff trophy, after beating Western Michigan 5-2 in the opening game of the league's Frozen Faceoff tournament at Target Center. Their opponent in the championship game will be North Dakota, which edged Denver 1-0 ending the Pioneers' 13-game winning streak.
Adam Johnson, a sophomore from Hibbing, Minn., set up three of the UMD goals as they broke a 2-2 tie late in the second period and cruised past the Broncos.
"It would be a great accomplishment, but I know one thing: We're going to have to play three better periods than that, I don't care who we're playing," said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin.
UMD (24-6-7) is expected to grab one of the top four seeds in the NCAA tournament, which begins in a week.
Unsatisfied after a game that was "not pretty" in the coach's words, his few compliments were reserved for goalie Hunter Miska, who had 24 saves. It was a meaningful game for the freshman from Stacy, Minn., who was second in voting for the league's top rookie goalie behind Western Michigan's Ben Blacker.
"Obviously, he's probably a little bit mad that he got snubbed, but everyone has seen what Hunter has done all season long," said Kyle Osterberg, who had a first-period goal for UMD. "This was just another steppingstone for him."
The Broncos (22-11-5) are also assured of an invite to the 16-team NCAA tournament field, which will be announced Sunday morning. They played Friday's game without two of their top four scorers; forwards Sheldon Dries and Wade Allison both sat out because of "day-to-day" injuries.
With the score knotted 2-2 late in the second period, Alex Iafallo's team-leading 18th goal of the season proved to be the winner.
In the second semifinal, the Fighting Hawks (21-14-3) got a third-period goal from Austin Poganski and 21 saves from Cam Johnson to advance. It is the first trip to the tournament's title game for North Dakota, the defending NCAA champion, which was cheered on by a festive sea of green-clad fans and all but assured itself of an NCAA tournament at-large bid with the win.
"These guys are focused and dialed in. It's a business trip, and we played like it tonight," Hawks coach Brad Berry said. "You want to try to control your own destiny."
The Fighting Hawks started the season with the nation's top ranking and survived an injury-filled season, finishing fourth in the conference. On Friday they overcame No. 1-ranked Denver, which blocked nine first-period shots and had the best first scoring chance when Dylan Gambrell clanked a shot off the crossbar late in the second period.
Poganski's game-winner came when a shot hit the end boards came directly to him at the right of the net.
"We've been playing playoff hockey for the last few weekends because our lives have been on the line," said Johnson, who had his fourth shutout of the season. "We're playing the right way right now, finding ways to win, and we're going to roll with it."