Bulldogs freshman defenseman Connor Kelley rifled a shot from the center blue line right down the pipe 6:24 into overtime for just his third goal of the season, to give third-seeded Bulldogs a dramatic 5-4 OT victory over sixth-seeded Western Michigan in a back-and-forth NCHC Frozen Faceoff quarterfinal at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
It was the 13th consecutive postseason win for the defending NCHC postseason champions from 2019 and reigning back-to-back NCAA national champions, who now advance to play second-seeded St. Cloud State at 3:05 p.m. Monday in the league semifinals.
No. 1 North Dakota and No. 5 Denver meet in the second semifinal at 8:05 p.m. Monday. It will the seventh meeting of the season for the Fighting Hawks and Pioneers, as well as for the Bulldogs and Huskies.
“We were just talking in the locker room, it’s going to be a matter of getting pucks through and we didn’t care who the hero was, as long as we got it,” Bulldogs junior wing Cole Koepke said of the win Saturday. “For (Kelley), he has been playing great with a lot of great confidence the last few games. … To see him get that goal, it was awesome.”
Kelley’s game-winner came off a controversial faceoff in overtime that left Broncos coach Andy Murray irate after the game. The puck never touched the ice off the drop, instead hitting the hand of UMD junior center Jesse Jacques, and possibly even Broncos senior center Paul Washe as well. The puck ricocheted to Western freshman defenseman Aidan Fulp, who then sent the puck right up the middle to Kelley.
The 19-year-old Kelley, who got his second goal a week ago at St. Cloud, said it was a weird sequence as faceoff plays such as that are usually blown dead.
“I kind of stick handled it because I thought the ref is going to blow the whistle,” Kelley said. “Then, I think, their wing kind of came out to me a little bit, so I just decided to shoot it.
“I saw the left side of the net was open. I don’t think their goalie was really ready just because of the faceoff.”
Speaking to reporters via Zoom after the game, Murray had calmed down. He knew once the officials failed to blow the whistle off the faceoff, there was nothing they could do to reverse the goal as faceoffs are non-reviewable.
“Duluth certainly would maybe find another way to score, but on that situation, it should have been blown down,” Murray said. “All of the players kind of hesitated on the play because I think they all expected it would be blown down.
“The referees have tough calls to make, but certainly that was one with four guys out there that we felt they should have maybe seen it.”
While Kelley got the game-winner, UMD’s postseason veterans posted the first four goals of the evening.
Senior wing Koby Bender scored in both the first and second period for while senior wing Kobe Roth and junior wing Cole Koepke picked up critical goals in the third.
Roth tied the game 4:27 into the third period at 3-3, backhanding through UMD’s second power-play goal of the night on two advantages. Koepke put the Bulldogs up 4-3 on a breakaway coming out of the penalty box with 13:28 to go in regulation.
Broncos sophomore wing Jason Polin scored twice, tying the game 9:59 into the first period at 1-1 and again with 21.8 seconds left on the clock while the Western net was emptied for an extra attacker.
Polin’s score was one of two Western recorded in the final minute of a period on Saturday.
The Broncos took a 3-2 advantage into the third period via a goal by junior wing Cole Gallant with 37.8 seconds to play in the second. Gallant was able to drive the net and put away a rebound after a breakdown by the Bulldogs’ blue line in the final minute of the period, with senior wing Ethen Frank grabbing a bouncing puck and putting an initial shot on net.
The Bulldogs and Broncos traded goals in the opening 10 minutes to go into the first intermission tied 1-1. Senior wing Koby Bender scored 2:21 into the game on a wicked shot from the slot to give UMD the early lead. Polin tied the game on the rush via a pass by freshman wing Ty Glover around the outstretched stick of a UMD defenseman.
Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said he was happy with the way his team handled the various momentum swings Saturday. While those happen during the regular season, they’re more magnified at this time of year, he said.
“It’s something we talk about a lot, especially when you get to this time of the year,” Sandelin said. “You’ve got to manage that. You’ve got to keep even keeled. We talked about it after the second period when they got the late goal.
“You got to put it behind you and you got to look forward to the next period or whatever part of the game is left. You can’t get down on those things — same thing we talked about after they tied it at the end of the game. That over, you can’t change it, but you got an opportunity in front of you to go win and overtime. Fortunately we did that.”
Western Michigan’s Cedric Fiedler (17) and Bulldogs forward Jackson Cates vie for the puck in the second period of Saturday’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff quarterfinals game at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks HeraldNick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
Thumbs up to the Bulldogs’ special teams
Leading up to the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, UMD’s penalty kill gave up a goal in each of the final five regular season games, finishing 8-for-15 in that span. The power play was 0-for-14 in the last five regular season games.
On Saturday against the Broncos, in a game that featured few whistles, UMD’s power play converted on both of its chances to tie the game at 2-2 and 3-3.
“That was huge for us,” Koepke said of the two power-play goals. “It hasn’t been necessarily having a ton of production lately, and that’s something that we had a big emphasis on this week in practice.”
Both teams scored on their opening power play of the evening — which both came in the second period — with Frank striking 26 seconds into Western’s first man advantage of the night. On UMD’s first power play six minutes later, Bender tied the game with his second goal of the game.
Frank’s power play goal was the Broncos’ eighth in 10 power plays and fourth goal in four power plays against UMD going back to the 4-1 win in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on Feb. 13 when Western went 3-for-3.
The Broncos went back on the power play 5:18 into the third period right after Roth tied the game at 3-3, but UMD was not only able to kill it off, they used the momentum to spring Koepke — who had been in the box for hooking — for his breakaway go-ahead goal.
“We grabbed the momentum off that,” Sandelin said of the kill. “Just as important as goals are, or power play goals are, a timely kill is big. They scored on their first one. They made a great play and Frank is a goal scorer, he wired it. Our guys talked on the bench that, ‘Hey this is important,’ and they got the job done.”
Thumbs up to the Bulldogs’ resilience on Saturday
The Bulldogs suffered what could be considered a trio of kicks to the gut in Saturday’s OT win over Western.
UMD gave up two goals in the final minutes of the second and third periods. The goal by Gallant with 37.8 seconds left on the clock put Western ahead 3-2. The extra attacker goal by Polin with 21.8 seconds to go sent the game to overtime.
Then there was the Broncos’ first power play goal of the night 26 seconds into their first power play after going 3-for-3 on the advantage the last time these two teams met.
All three moments could have been back-breaking, tournament-ending moments for the Bulldogs, but UMD bounced back.
Like a bad game, Sandelin said you have to flush those kicks to the gut from the memory and move on in a back-and-forth battle like the one UMD was in Saturday.
“It’s tough, that’s this game,” Sandelin said. “The ups, the downs, the momentum swings — they can change quickly. Some last long, some are short, but there are a lot of momentum swings in these games when good teams play. You just got to stick with it.”
Matt’s Three Stars
3. WMU sophomore forward Jason Polin — A pair of game-tying goals for the Broncos, knotting the game in the first period and at the end of the third to force OT.
2. UMD senior wing Koby Bender — He picked up the first two UMD goals, giving UMD a 1-0 lead and erasing Western’s first lead, a 2-1 advantage in the second.
1. UMD freshman defenseman Connor Kelley — His third goal as a Bulldog was his first game-winner, and an OT-postseason game-winner to boot.
Western Michigan 1-2-1-0—4
Minnesota Duluth 1-1-2-1—5
Saves — Brandon Bussi, WMU, 12-10-9-7—32; Ryan Fanti, UMD, 11-10-8-5—32.
Power play — WMU 1-2; UMD 2-2. Penalties — WMU 4-8; UMD 4-8.