March 22, 2009

Thirty three teams have tried and 33 teams have failed. Then along came the 2008-09 University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs.

The Bulldogs, buoyed by another stellar puckstopping performance by Alex Stalock and a three-goal night from MacGregor Sharp, shut down the University of Denver 3-0 Saturday in the WCHA Final Five title game. In the process, the Bulldogs became the first play-in game participant in the 17-year history of the Final Five to capture the championship trophy.

The victory, before a crowd of 16,749 at the St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, concluded an unprecedented WCHA playoff run for UMD and earned the Bulldogs an automatic berth in next weekend's NCAA tournament.

"I'm extremely proud of our team," said head coach Scott Sandelin after his Bulldogs claimed their third WCHA playoff crown in school history, but first in 24 years. "Our kids really came through and played better and better as the weekend went on. To see the players hold that Broadmoor Trophy at the end of the game is an exciting thing for our program."

UMD, which was making its first WCHA Final Five title game appearance, cashed in on its initial power play opportunity of the game at 10:45 of the first period when senior center MacGregor Sharp scored off a centering feed from sophomore right winger Justin Fontaine. It marked the third straight night that Sharp provided the Bulldogs with an early 1-0 lead.

Sharp struck again at the 9:13 mark of the second period by tapping in Mike Connolly's backdoor pass past Denver goaltender Marc Cheverie. Just under three minutes later, rookie center Jack Connolly put the Bulldogs up 3-0 on the power play by sneaking a shot near the left side of the crease between the pipe and Cheverie's right arm. Sharp completed the scoring, and his second collegiate hat trick with an empty net goal with 2:32 left in regulation -giving him six goals and an assist on the weekend.

Denver, which came into the night sporting the WCHA's most potent offense (3.42 goals per game), met its match in Stalock, who turned aside all 20 Pioneer shots while becoming the first Bulldog to ever post back-to back shutouts. Stalock blanked WCHA regular season champion North Dakota 3-0 in the semifinals Friday and is now 5-0-0 in the postseason, allowing just three goals and compiling an jaw-dropping .981 saves percentage (155 saves on 158 shots).

"I have been seeing the puck pretty well, but I need to give credit to the 18 guys who play in front me," said Stalock, who took over as the Bulldogs' all-time leader in shutouts with nine and equaled a single-season mark in that same department with five. "The defenseman have been unreal and the forwards are doing a great job of getting back. These last five games we knew we needed to buckle down from where we were at the end of the season (when the Bulldog went went winless in their last five games)."

What could hardly be regarded as shocking news, Stalock was selected as the WCHA Final Five Most Valuable Player and joined Sharp, Mike Connolly and senior defenseman Josh Meyers on the seven-member All-Tournament Team.

UMD, now 21-12-8 overall, will find out its NCAA playoff fate Sunday morning (10:30 CST on ESPN2) when the 16-team tournament is announced.