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Minnesotans lead Bulldogs past Gophers and into North Star College Cup final

ST. PAUL — When asked for his thoughts about the impending end of the North Star College Cup after just four years, the answer of Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin was brief and to the point this week.

"We're the only team that hasn't won it, so hopefully we can go in and win it," Sandelin said Wednesday.

The Bulldogs will get a shot at winning the first of what they hope is a number of titles this season Saturday when they play St. Cloud State for the North Star College Cup championship at 7:05 p.m. at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

The Huskies, who are the defending North Star champions, took down Bemidji State in the early game Friday by a 2-1 margin, while the Bulldogs held on for a seventh-straight win over Minnesota, 3-2 in front of an announced crowd of 12,167 at Xcel.

"A good win, good win for our team," Sandelin said Friday. "I thought we got better as the game went on. The third period, there were a lot of penalties. Don't ask me about that. I'm not going to comment on that. I thought Hunter (Miska) played great again. We spent most the period in the box killing penalties. It gave them every opportunity to get back in the game and our guys held the fort. It's a big win for our team."

Freshman goaltender Hunter Miska of Stacy, Minn., made 37 saves to improve to 15-4-2 on the year, while his fellow Minnesota natives and North Star College Cup rookies, Avery Peterson, a junior center from Grand Rapids, and Riley Tufte, a freshman wing from Blaine, recorded key goals for the team that sits atop the NCHC standings and Pairwise rankings with only a few days remaining in January.

Miska made 21 of his 37 saves in the third period — after a quiet second period where he only saw five shots on goal — as the Gophers tried feverishly to end a losing streak against UMD that dates back to 2014.

Minnesota was awarded four of its six power plays in the third — generating nine shots on goal — with sophomore Brent Gates Jr. pulling Minnesota within one via his second power-play goal of the night. That came with 38.9 seconds left on the clock and the Gopher net empty for an extra attacker.

Miska, a 21-year-old freshman, has started the last 19 games for the Bulldogs, and neither he or his coach see a change in goal coming anytime soon.

"It was pretty crazy," Miska said of the third. "I wasn't getting too much action in the second period and I knew they were going to come out flying in the third period. I had to keep my head in the game, and I thought our players did really well in front of me, allowing me to see the puck.

"I feel really good. Juniors prepared me really well for this opportunity and I just have to keep rolling."

Gates Jr. put the Bulldogs down 1-0 five minutes in, but Tufte, Peterson and senior wing Alex Iafallo got UMD out to a 3-1 lead by the midway point of the third.

Tufte tied the game at 1-1 late in the third period on a tremendous individual effort that included a steal, juke and snipe. Later in the third he sprung fellow Minnesota Mr. Hockey Award winner, Peterson, for a breakaway goal that made it 3-1 Bulldogs.

Tufte now has eight points in his past seven games after getting shut out in his first 14 NCAA contests. The unassisted score in the first period Friday was his fifth goal in five games.

Peterson, who transferred to UMD last December from Nebraska-Omaha, now has four goals and two assists in his eight games since becoming eligible to play on Dec. 17, including three goals in the past four games.

"We're both big guys and we work well together," Tufte said of he and Peterson, "along with Karson Kuhlman. You have to give him credit, too. They are both great guys on and off the ice. We've been having good chemistry. It's been nice."

Iafallo gave the Bulldogs a 2-1 lead early in the second period during a two-man advantage after senior center Dominic Toninato of Duluth drew a cross check while walking in front of the Gopher net for a potential goal on a one-man advantage.

The goal snapped a nine-game goalless streak for Iafallo, who still leads UMD in scoring with 11 goals and 15 assists despite generating only four points — all assists — since UMD returned from the holiday break.

Minnesota.................................. 1-0-0—1

Minnesota Duluth.................... 1-1-1—3

First period — 1. MN, Brent Gates 10 (Vinni Lettieri, Steve Johnson), 5:05; 2. UMD, Riley Tufte 5, 18:51. Penalties — Adam Johnson, UMD (holding), 3:55; Jake Bischoff, MN (roughing after the whistle), 4:51; Dominic Toninato, UMD (roughing after the whistle), 4:51; Jared Thomas, UMD (interference), 6:10; Justin Kloos, MN (goaltender interference), 9:20.

Second period — 3. UMD, Alec Iafallo 11 (Joey Anderson, Neal Pionk), 6:48 (pp). Penalties — Leon Bristedt, MN (hooking), 15:32; Ryan Lindgren, MN (cross checking), 5:51; XXXX.

Third period — 5. UMD, Avery Peterson 4 (Tufte), 8:34; 6. MN, Gates Jr. 11 (Bristedt, Kloos), 19:21 (pp). Penalties — Carson Soucy, UMD (cross checking), 2:44; Sammy Spurrell, UMD (slashing), 4:30; Leon Bristedt, MN (interference), 8:54; Toninato, UMD (hooking), 11:50; Peterson, UMD (holding), 18:50.

Shots on goal — MN 12-5-22—39; UMD 12-15-2—29. Goalies — Eric Schierhorn, MN (29 shots-26 saves); Hunter Miska, UMD (39-37). Power plays — MN 2-of-6; UMD 1-of-4. Referees — Tom Stearns, Barry Pochmara. Linesmen — Chad Roethlisberger, Jonathan Morrison. Att. — 12,167.

St. Cloud State 2, Bemidji State 1

The unranked Huskies are set to play the Bulldogs on Saturday for the third time in three weeks, fifth time this season and 10th time over the past two seasons.

The Bulldogs own a 3-1 mark against the Huskies in 2016-17, though the last time the NCHC rivals met for a championship in the Twin Cities — the NCHC Frozen Faceoff Championship at Target Center in Minneapolis — it was St. Cloud State prevailing.

The Huskies are back in the North Star College Cup final thanks to goals by Jacob Benson on the power play in the first period and Blake Winiecki in the second period.

The Beavers' Zach Whitecloud made it a 2-1 game in the closing minutes of the second period, scoring just his second goal of the season.

Huskies goaltender Jeff Smith made 26 saves, while Michael Bitzer made 19 saves for the No. 20-ranked Beavers.

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

(218) 723-5317