Road to the Frozen Four: Providence & Minnesota-Duluth

The Providence College Friars and University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs are set to meet in the Frozen Four Semifinals on April 11 in Buffalo, New York. They will be competing for a ticket to the final where the winner will have to face either the Denver University Pioneers or the UMass Minutemen.

The Friars and Bulldogs took two vastly different paths to the semifinals as well as the 2019 NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament as a whole. While UMD has been a top contender all season, Providence shocked the college hockey world by outscoring their first two opponents in the tournament 10-3.

Providence Friars: The Surprise

To start the 2018-19 season, Providence struggled to string wins together. That was until a five-game winning streak spanning the entire month of December and early January. Eventually, they fell back down to Earth losing to conference rivals Boston College and Boston University in a single weekend.

Something sparked within the locker room leading up to the final games of the season. From February onward, Providence went 6-2-2 against Hockey East opponents, topping UMass-Lowell (twice), Maine, Connecticut, BC and (most impressively) the then No. 2 ranked Minutemen.

They kicked off the Hockey East tournament with a 5-4 overtime win over BC before losing the following two games and the series. However, since the Friars nabbed a tournament bid, they have been nothing but dominant.

East Regional Semifinals

The NCAA East Regional Semifinals and Finals were held at Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence, RI. They took advantage of what was virtually home ice. In the semifinals against the No. 2 ranked Minnesota State Mavericks, The Friars’ championship aspirations were quickly brought into question. The Mavericks scored three goals in first 11:08 of play. Providence’s response was something to marvel at.

Junior Josh Wilkins tallied a power-play goal just two minutes after the 3-0 deficit to bring them within two heading into the second period. After a tally by fellow junior Vimal Sukumaran, Providence potted three-straight goals on the man-advantage thanks to junior Kasper Bjorkqvist, freshman Tyce Thompson, and Wilkins once again. With just over two minutes to spare, sophomore Jason O’Neil iced the 6-3 victory with an empty-netter to send Providence to the East Regional Finals.

East Regional Finals

There they met a very formidable opponent in the Cornell Big Red. With a 21-11-4 overall record, Cornell was the No. 10 ranked team prior to the tournament. They fell to the No. 9 ranked Clarkson Golden Knights in the ECAC championship but went on to defeat the Northeastern Huskies in the East Regional Semifinals.

Cornell had a slow start in the East Regional Finals which wound up foreshadowing the outcome. Despite two power plays (one just 36 seconds into the game) it was clear that the Big Red couldn’t get much going. Sophomore Greg Printz went on to open the scoring for the Friars just 10:20 into regulation. Providence never looked back.

Wilikns potted a goal 1:40 into the second period – his third of the tournament. He then went on to assist junior Scott Conway’s powerplay tally with just one second remaining in the second frame. Altogether, the Friars outshot Cornell 14-4 in the second period alone. While the Big Red showed signs of life in the final frame, it was too late. Senior netminder Hayden Hawkey closed the door to complete the 19-save shutout while junior Brandon Duhaime put the icing on the cake via an empty-netter.

Just like that, the Friars were off to the Frozen Four. It’s just the second time the program has reached this stage since 1985. In the first of these two berths, Providence went on to win the NCAA Championship in 2015.

John Gilmour
John Gilmour of the Providence Friars celebrates the team’s NCAA Championship win in 2015. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

To reach the pinnacle of the college hockey world once again, Providence will have to skate through Minnesota-Duluth. UMD has been the biggest powerhouse in college hockey this decade and the Friars have an uphill battle ahead of them, but that’s nothing new for a team that was unranked entering the tournament.

Minnesota-Duluth: The Defending Champs

The defending champs have been dominant in their own right and will look to propel themselves to their third consecutive National Championship appearance. They took home their first championship in 2011 before defeating the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2-1 last season to clinch their second title.

After a hiccup that saw them go 0-1-1 against the Minnesota Golden Gophers in their first two games, UMD reminded the hockey world why they are the defending champs. They went on an eight-game winning streak, including a sweep of their weekend reunion with the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame. However, the Bulldogs closed out the semester on a low note, going 1-3-1 in the month of December.

Duluth started their second semester fresh and ready to go. They split a weekend series with the St. Cloud State Huskies who were widely considered the team’s biggest hurdle to a second consecutive title. They then lost to the Huskies twice in their final two games of the regular season which certainly caused some doubt in the Bulldogs’ corner.

Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs Frozen Four 2018
Though they are the defending NCAA Champions, Minnesota-Duluth faced a big test this season in the form of St. Cloud State. (Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports)

UMD went on to become 2019 NCHC Conference Champions, defeating none other than St. Cloud in the finals 3-2 in double overtime. It was a statement win that lifted the hopes of Duluth and their supporters.

With a 27-11-2 overall record, the Bulldogs entered the tournament as the No. 2 ranked team behind St. Cloud, according to US College Hockey Online. With their rival now out of the picture, thanks to one of the biggest upsets in history, UMD’s path to a second consecutive title is a little bit easier. However, another championship isn’t a given and neither was their road to the Frozen Four.

Midwest Regional Semifinals

Duluth was pinned against the Bowling Green Falcons to kick off the tournament. A back-and-forth battle in the opening frame saw Bowling Green jump out to a 1-0 lead thanks to a tally from sophomore Brandon Kruse, his 10th of the season.

UMD recoiled between periods and came out guns blazing. They tested the Falcon’s junior netminder Ryan Bednard with 10 shots during the second frame. Their momentum carried over into the third period which saw Duluth put another 14 shots on goal. This ultimately produced the game-tying goal from senior Parker Mackay with roughly three minutes to go.

Overtime was slightly less tilted in the Bulldogs’ favor, but Mackay found the cage again for the game-winning goal 10:45 into the extra period, defeating Bowling Green 2-1 in overtime. UMD’s junior goaltender, Hunter Shepard, inked his 26th win of the season off a 30-save performance in which he only coughed up a single goal.

Midwest Regional Finals

After outlasting Bowling Green, Duluth came face-to-face with the Quinnipiac Bobcats. Once again, it was not an easy win for UMD.

The Bobcats were one of the biggest surprises of the 2018-19 collegiate season. After losing to North Dakota in the championship game in 2016, the national tournament evaded QU the past two seasons. They entered this season with a slew of 13 freshmen on their roster.

What was originally believed to be a rebuilding season quickly morphed into a tournament bid. They started the campaign with a six-game winning streak and took the spotlight by storm.

While QU gave UMD some headaches, the Bulldogs prevailed. With less than five minutes remaining in the first period, senior Peter Krieger handed Duluth a 1-0 lead off helpers from sophomores Scott Perunovich and Nick Swaney.

Bulldogs defenseman Scott Perunovich
Minnesota-Duluth sophomore defenseman Scott Perunovich leads the Bulldogs in assists this season with 26. (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

After a scoreless second period, Quinnipiac was understandably desperate. They registered 12 shots in the third frame after hitting the net just 10 times in the first 40 minutes of play. The Bulldogs earned themselves some breathing room, however. Sophomore Kobe Roth potted his eighth goal of the season with just over five minutes remaining in the game.

With a power play and their netminder pulled, the Bobcats clawed their way back into the game. Senior Craig Martin made it 2-1 with just over two minutes to go. However, Mackay ended any hopes of a QU comeback with an empty-netter to send Duluth to the Frozen Four.

Providence vs. Minnesota-Duluth

At first glance, one team in this Frozen Four matchup seems to be an underdog: Providence. The bad first period against Minnesota State aside, the Friars had a pretty seamless road to this stage of the tournament. With that said, the defending champs are still favored.

They certainly had to grind their way to the Frozen Four this season, but Duluth seemed calm and composed throughout their tournament run thus far – even when playing from behind or sitting on a one-goal lead. They’ve battled opponents tooth and nail in order to get here and their roster is full of players with plenty of experience in big-time games.

Karson Kuhlman Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs Bruins
Though they are favored, Minnesota-Duluth can’t overlook the explosive offense that Providence College has been generating. (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

While the Bulldogs are expected to make it back to the final, they can’t looks past Providence. The Friars have shown that they have a number of weapons at their disposal, allowing them explode offensively. In a high-scoring affair, Providence could very well dethrone UMD. However, if it’s another low-scoring grind out for the Bulldogs, then they certainly have the advantage.

When the puck drops on Thursday, both teams will be fighting for a chance to make history within their respective programs. Duluth is looking to become the next great dynasty in NCAA hockey, but in their way is Providence who is looking to cap off the decade with two national championships in four years. No matter the outcome, the winner will have a tough test in the form of either UMass or Denver on Saturday before they can be crowned NCAA Hockey Champions.