DULUTH, Minn. -- It took nearly the entire first month of the season, but North Dakota’s comeback karma finally ran out on Friday night.
Minnesota Duluth built a 3-0 lead through the first 27 minutes and held off a UND rally late in the second period for a 5-2 Bulldogs victory in the NCHC opener for both teams.
Senior Alex Iafallo collected his first career hat trick for the second-ranked Bulldogs (4-1-2, 1-0-0 NCHC), who handed the top-ranked Fighting Hawks (5-1-0, 0-1-0 NCHC) their first loss of the season.
In fact, it was just UND’s second loss in its last 12 games dating back to last March, and the Bulldogs were responsible for both. The other was a 4-2 decision at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff in Minneapolis.
“There goes the undefeated season,” quipped UND senior captain Gage Ausmus following the game.
Iafallo scored twice, bookended around an Adam Johnson goal, to give UMD a 3-0 lead before the halfway point of the game and it appeared the Bulldogs would cruise to victory.
But UND, which had given up the game’s first goal in each of its previous five outings before rallying to win all five, began the makings of yet another comeback late in the second.
First it was Rhett Gardner banging home a rebound while on the power play to make it 3-1 with 2:43 left in the middle frame. It was Gardner’s third goal of the season.
Then two minutes later, fellow sophomore Shane Gersich gobbled up a loose puck outside the UMD zone and cruised in alone on netminder Hunter Miska, making a move to the backhand before sliding the puck 5-hole for his fourth of the year.
After 40 minutes, it was a one-goal game and UND looked to be position for another comeback win.
Penalties, however, aborted the rally for the Fighting Hawks.
With sophomore scoring leader Brock Boeser in the box for slashing, UMD defenseman Neal Pionk wired a blast through traffic on the ensuing power play, restoring a two-goal cushion for the Bulldogs.
Iafallo sealed the UMD win, and his first hat trick, with an empty-net goal in the final minute.
“We had to catch up with the game,” said Gersich, who also had an assist to give him 10 points in six games after an 11-point freshman season. “In the second period, we got the momentum going our way. We started the third really good and it kind of got away from us. That’s something we need to work on. Our starts haven’t been good. If we can get one early or get the momentum early, that’s a huge key for us.”
UND head coach Brad Berry said the Fighting Hawks were unable to generate or sustain any time in the offensive zone to test the freshman netminder Miska.
“We didn’t have a lot of offensive opportunities,” said Berry. “We have to make sure we have a chance to play in their end, protect pucks and play heavy.”
Minnesota Duluth carried a 38-26 advantage in shots on goal, the first time all season UND had been outshot. Sophomore defenseman Christian Wolanin said the team has to end the trend of trailing early.
“We obviously know it’s happening, it’s just a mindset,” said Wolanin, who returned to the lineup from a lower-body injury and registered one assist. “It’s a mindset that starts in warmup. It starts right when we get to the rink, really. It’s something we’re going to figure out as a team and hopefully put an end to.”
“I thought we showed spurts where we played really well, and got things done, but (we were) just inconsistent and they outplayed us,” continued Wolanin. “We have a pretty young team and that’s our first, stiff college hockey team that we’ve played so far. It’s good that we got to see it. We’ve just got to come out better tomorrow.”
While Ausmus joked earlier that an undefeated season was no longer in the offing, he added that UND’s seven-month span between losses was never a topic in the locker room. The focus, he said, is solely on Saturday’s series finale.
“No one on this team likes losing,” said Ausmus. “That’s the great thing about this team.”
Saturday’s series finale starts at 7:07 p.m. Central and will be telecast live in the Duluth viewing area on My 9 and in the Grand Forks viewing area on Midco Sports Network.
Notes: The Bulldogs held a slim 36-33 edge in the faceoff circle … Iafallo, Adam Johnson and Miska were named the game’s three stars … Cam Johnson made his 37th straight start in goal for UND, the fourth-longest such streak in program history. He finished the night with a season-high 33 saves … Gersich extended his career-long point streak to six games, while linemates Brock Boeser and Tyson Jost had their respective streaks end at five games.