But despite the best efforts of the Gophers, Friday wasn't the night.
Hunter Miska stood tall against a storm of third-period Minnesota shots, powered by four Gopher power plays in the frame, and UMD held on to beat Minnesota 3-2 in the semifinals of the North Star College Cup in St. Paul.
The reward? A fifth meeting with St. Cloud State Saturday night in the last NSCC championship game. That NON-TELEVISED game starts at 7pm, listen on 92.1 The Fan or via your desktop/mobile devices HERE.
Anyway, good game here Friday night. Minnesota pushed early, and got a power play goal from Brent Gates, Jr., for a 1-0 lead barely five minutes in. The Gophers then absorbed a pushback that started around the midway point of the period. UMD had some chances, but didn't bury anything until late in the first, when freshman Riley Tufte picked off a pass up the right-wing boards, walked to the middle, and sniped a sick wrist shot by Minnesota goalie Eric Schierhorn for a 1-1 tie.
From the outset of the second period, UMD was the better team. Minnesota took penalties :19 apart early for a long UMD five-on-three. It took 57 seconds, but UMD cashed in, as Joey Anderson's second effort at a cross-crease pass to Alex Iafallo worked, and Iafallo got the puck by Schierhorn for a 2-1 lead and his first goal in ten games. UMD dominated the period and outshot the Gophers 15-5, but Schierhorn stood tall the rest of the way and kept the margin one goal going into the third.
And when this Bulldog team needed a play, it was Tufte again.
UMD had to kill 3:46 of Minnesota power play time early in the third, including a 14-second five-on-three. The Gophers put up nine shots over that timeframe, but got nothing home. A little more than two minutes later, UMD had little going for itself before Tufte picked off a pass near the UMD blue line and sprung Avery Peterson for a breakaway. Peterson made no mistake, and UMD had a two-goal edge.
Minnesota kept pushing, but Miska kept the Gophers off the board until a late power play goal by Brent Gates that came after a dubious Peterson holding penalty in the neutral zone. The Gophers never got set up in the offensive zone in the final 39 seconds, and UMD had a seventh straight win over its longtime Interstate 35 rival.
It wasn't always pretty. The Bulldogs had to weather quite a storm in the third period. 36 of Minnesota's 69 shot attempts and 22 of the 39 shots on goal came in the third. To the credit of the UMD defense, only six of the 36 attempts came in the prime scoring area, but Minnesota had the puck a lot in the third, no doubt.
(Some of that was the 4-1 edge in power plays Minnesota enjoyed in the third. I'm not going to rag on the Big Ten officiating crew, but let's just say UMD fans should be happy to play in the NCHC, no matter how upset we may get with the officials in that league from time to time. The crews we had in both games Friday were inconsistent as all get out, and in the UMD game, instead of them calling a looser third, it was called much tighter than either of the first two periods. That was capped by the Peterson holding call, which was a hold but was eclipsed by three or four other plays -- both ways, to be fair -- earlier in the game. And for that matter, the contact UMD got on Schierhorn a couple times without a penalty far eclipsed the incidental contact made on Miska by Justin Kloos to draw a penalty in the first period. /rant)
It was one of Miska's strongest games. He saw the puck through screens, played it smartly, and made a couple athletic saves. Coming off the shutout of North Dakota Saturday, Miska showed no lag in his game and was the No. 1 star in our book.
What can be said about Tufte that hasn't already been said in the last couple weeks?
The sky's the limit at this point. Here's what Scott Sandelin said before Friday's game.
"It was nice and rewarding to see him finally get some goals. Who knows where he can go from here? He's a big body that's hard to contain around the net. Hopefully that will continue."
Before the season, we made it abundantly clear that Anderson was in a better position to make an immediate impact than Tufte. The draft is the draft. Teams are drafting based on pro potential, not potential college production or college readiness. Tufte, with that size and his hands, projects as a better pro than Anderson.
But what happened in the first half was not a shock. Maybe a bit surprising that Tufte was literally held without a point, especially over the last dozen or so games when he was doing a lot of things right and not getting rewarded for it. But Anderson out-producing Tufte shouldn't have made anyone do a double-take.
That said, what Tufte has done since the team returned from break is nothing short of remarkable. In the last five games, he has five goals and seven points. Two of those goals were unassisted, as he stole pucks and sniped shots by the respective goalies. The bottom line for Tufte is the development continues, the confidence grows, and he is going to continue to make quite the impact on this team.
With the emergence of Tufte and the addition of Peterson, UMD got a lot deeper. Once Parker Mackay returns from injury (this could happen as soon as the CC series if everything goes well, but worst case Mackay is back for the postseason), someone -- I'd think Mackay likely to start -- is dropping to the fourth line who hasn't been there really all year. Tough decisions are coming in that regard, but it's a good thing for a UMD team that keeps finding ways to win.
St. Cloud State advanced to the championship game by beating Bemidji State 2-1. Jacob Benson (power play) and Blake Winiecki (even strength) scored for SCSU, and Jeff Smith made 26 saves in goal for the Huskies. Zach Whitecloud scored the Beavers' only goal. Bemidji State plays Minnesota at 4pm in the third place game.
Should be a fun game. The Huskies are tough in the back, have horses up front, and could be vulnerable in goal. The series in Duluth two weekends ago was fun, and Saturday should be, too.
The other six NCHC teams battled it out for league points. In Oxford, Western Michigan got a second-period goal from Hugh McGing and held on to beat Miami 2-1. Cam Lee also scored for the Broncos, who got 20 saves from goalie Ben Blacker to stay in third place in the NCHC, nine points back of UMD now.
North Dakota rallied furiously from a 2-0 deficit to beat Colorado College 5-2. Duluth native Trevor Olson started the comeback with a second-period goal, then UND got goals in the third from Hayden Shaw, Dixon Bowen, Shane Gersich, and Joel Janatuinen to seal the deal. Matej Tomek started in goal for the injured Cam Johnson (lower body), but was pulled after the first period. Matt Hrynkiw got the win.
In Denver, the Pioneers ralled from a 2-0 hole of their own to win 5-3 over Omaha. Denver struck four times in the second, with Tyson McLellan, Henrik Borgstrom, Dylan Gambrell, and Will Butcher giving the Pioneers a 4-2 lead. Justin Parizek, Austin Ortega, and Mason Morelli had the UNO goals. Denver is within three points of UMD for first place in the conference, and will try to tie the Bulldogs in the standings Saturday.
If you can't get enough of me, I'm on the Sit Down & Cheer podcast, produced by the University of North Dakota. I joined UND sports information director Jayson Hajdu and longtime radio voice Tim Hennessy. It's over an hour long and was recorded after last Friday's UMD win in Grand Forks.
Also, I'll be on Beyond The Pond Saturday morning at 10:15 with Brandon Mileski and gang on KFAN in the Twin Cities. Hear it on 100.3 FM in the Cities, 92.1 FM in the Twin Ports, or online at kfan.com.
Going to effort getting SCSU coach Bob Motzko before the championship game Saturday. Also have a conversation from earlier this week with Tufte that I think you'll enjoy.