NCHC Frozen Faceoff Day 2: Denver, Duluth Advance to Monday

GRAND FORKS, ND– Day two of the NCHC quarterfinals happened on Saturday with St. Cloud State and North Dakota awaiting their opponents for Monday night.

In the first match-up, the Omaha Mavericks came back to the Ralph for the third weekend out of the last four to take on the undermanned Denver Pioneers, who only had 10 forwards and six defensemen due to the team being under COVID quarantine. 

Despite the small roster, Denver got on the board first thanks to Hank Crone ripping a shot that ringed off both posts and behind Isaiah Saville to give the Pioneers an early lead. Denver took the play to Omaha, outshooting them 10-2 until the Mavericks struck with two quick goals. First, Jason Smallidge threw a floater on net through a screen and snuck past Magnus Chrona to tie the game. Just about a minute later, Matt Miller turned at the bottom of the face off circle on Chrona’s blocker side and went far glove side to make it 2-1 for Omaha. 

Things got chippy in the second period, with Denver losing Antti Tuomisto and Omaha losing Martin Sundberg to different head-contact game misconducts, as well as five minute majors to go along with it. One major penalty cut into the other, so neither team got the full five minutes to work with, which yielded no power play goals in that time frame. After Omaha’s major power play expired, they caught Denver in a bad line change, leading to Tyler Weiss burying home a Taylor Ward pass to make it 3-1 Mavericks. Denver cut the deficit to one on the power play, as Bobby Brink scored on a one-time attempt that he didn’t get all of, as the puck fluttered over the shoulder of Saville to make it a one-goal game. 

Denver wasted no time getting the equalizer in the third, as Mike Benning took a rebound at the face off dot and slapped it over the shoulder of Saville to tie the game only 42 seconds into the frame. The balance of the third has Omaha offensively on top of Denver, almost doubling their shot total in only ten minutes. That didn’t matter, as a Tyler Weiss tripping call  put Denver on the power play with Benning ripping a shot high over the glove of Saville– thanks to a screen by Kohen Olischefski– to give Denver the lead. The lead was short-lived, as Nate Knoepke potted his fourth of the year when a scramble in front left Knoepke open with a yawning cage in front of him to put the puck into. Denver broke the tie moments later when Bo Hanson tipped a Connor Caponi shot down in front, hit the puck with his backhand, which bounced over Saville’s legs and into the net. Despite pressure from the Mavs with Saville pulled, Denver held them off and will move onto Monday’s semifinal. 

THEY SAID IT

“We say it all the time, NCHC strength. Our only losses in the second half are North Dakota and Denver, and those are two pretty good hockey teams. With the strength of our conference, we hope to get an at-large bid.” Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet on the team’s NCAA tournament chances. 

“Just wasn’t good enough. Penalties were unacceptable. It’s up to us to play the right way and I don’t think we did that.“– Nolan Sullivan on Omaha’s penalty troubles through the game. 

“I don’t think it was too much of a factor. Our team depth is outstanding, it was something we had to rely on tonight. Just being in the moment– the excitement, the adrenaline– I don’t think it was much of a factor.”– Olischefski on the fatigue factor with only 16 skaters for Denver. 

“The biggest thing is we came here to advocate for the league that we should have four teams in the tournament. On the big picture, I think we’ve made our case to be the fourth team going 3-1-1 against Omaha. We’re going to have our hands full on Monday, but we checked a big box in beating Omaha.”– Denver head coach David Carle on his team’s chances for an at-large bid. 

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The second match-up had the defending NCAA champion Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs taking on the Western Michigan Broncos. It took less than three minutes for Dultuh to get on the board, as Koby Bender took the puck into the zone, cut across the slot, and beat Brandon Bussi far post to put the Bulldogs up 1-0. Just after the halfway mark, Western Michigan strikes back with a great redirect from Jason Polin off a wonderful feed from Ty Glover to beat Ryan Fanti and tie the game. 

The game stayed pretty neutral at the start of the third, not many shots either way. Midway through, however, the Broncos broke the tie on the power play. Drew Worrad set Ethen Frank up for a one-timer that Frank blew past Fanti to give Western the lead. With a power play of their own six minutes later, Bender tied the game for Duluth with his second of the night. Bender gathered a clearing attempt from in front of the net and put it past Bussi; who had lost the puck in the crowd in front. Late in the frame, the Broncos regained the lead, as Cole Gallant batted home an Ethen Frank rebound to make it 3-2 with under a minute remaining in the second. 

Duluth controlled the tempo to start the third, then on the power play, Kobe Roth and Noah Cates got in behind the Western Michigan defense for a 2-on-0, with Roth finishing it off and getting the game back at even. Duluth took the lead as Cole Koepke, coming out of the penalty box, picked up a pass and fired it glove side on Bussi to make it 4-3 Bulldogs. The Broncos fought back after that goal, controlling the puck in their offensive zone most of the final six minutes of regulation. That hard work paid off as with 21.8 seconds remaining and the goalie pulled, Polin got his second goal of the night after a feed in front by Josh Passolt sent the game to an extra frame, the first in the quarterfinals. 

Both Duluth went back and forth and had chances early in the frame. However, Connor Kelley ended the game 6:24 into the frame, with a wrister from the point, beating Bussi. Western Michigan took exception to the way the puck was dropped on the face off as it hit the hand of the Duluth centerman and didn’t hit the ice.

THEY SAID IT

“As a team we knew it was going to be like that. Western Michigan has been playing great hockey at the end of the year. We knew it was going to be a one, two goal game. We just have to stick with the game. If something happens, we have to leave it behind and move on.”– Koepke on the back-and-forth nature of the match-up.

“We got to keep an even keel. We talked about it in the second intermission, we can’t get down on those things. It’s over, you can’t change it, but you have the opportunity in front of you to win it in overtime and we did that.”– Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin on keeping his team controlled through the game. 

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Monday’s semifinals will have St. Cloud taking on Duluth in the afternoon game, while the evening game will have North Dakota taking on Denver. The winner of the semi battle it out on Tuesday for the NCHC championship and an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

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