Frozen Four: Longtime teammates hope to cap careers with national championship
CHICAGO -- The year was 2012 and John Marks, coach of the United States Hockey League's Fargo Force, decided it'd be wise to pair together a couple 18-year-olds from Duluth and Eden, N.Y.
Five years later, those players not only remain linemates, but are considered by some to be two-thirds of the best forward line in college hockey.
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They've also developed a lasting friendship, been college roommates the past four years and, most recently, could be seen on television sharing some Chicago-style deep dish pizza together while talking hockey with ESPN's John Buccigross.
That kid from Duluth was Dominic Toninato and the one from suburban Buffalo was Alex Iafallo. Saturday the Minnesota Duluth senior forwards will line up together for quite possibly the last time in hopes of leading the Bulldogs (28-6-7) over Denver (32-7-4) in the NCAA Division I men's championship at United Center. The game between NCHC rivals is scheduled for 7 p.m. on ESPN.
"It's mixed emotions," Toninato said. "It's really exciting that we get to play in the last game of the year together. We get a chance to win a national title together. It's exciting in that aspect, but it's going to be sad not only leaving him and the rest of the guys, but just not being able to put the 'Dogs jersey on anymore."
Toninato was a standout at Duluth East before playing four games with the Force after the 2011-12 prep season and one full junior season in Fargo in 2012-13. He was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fifth round, No. 126 overall, of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and will be signing with that organization once UMD's season wraps up Saturday.
Iafallo was playing Junior B hockey in Buffalo before landing in the Tier I USHL with the Force for the entirety of the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons. He went undrafted by the NHL, but the 2017 American Hockey Coaches Association first-team All-American will have plenty of options after Saturday as an unrestricted free agent, able to sign with any team he chooses.
Iafallo acknowledged his roommate may be lobbying him to come along to Toronto.
"It's pretty crazy what we've accomplished," Iafallo said Friday, a day after scoring the winning goal with 26.6 seconds left in a 2-1 semifinal win over Harvard. "We've just grown on each other. A lot of chemistry from day one in Fargo. It's very emotional. I can't believe it's going to be our last game together. We'll see what happens after. Just putting that Bulldog sweater on with him the last time is going to be pretty special."
Iafallo said he and Toninato have been more than just teammates, linemates and roommates over the last 4-5 years, they've been brothers.
After falling in the 2013 USHL Clark Cup finals to a Dubuque team that featured current Bulldogs sophomore forward Karson Kuhlman and current Denver coach Jim Montgomery, Iafallo and Toninato had to race from Fargo to Duluth. It was late May and they drove straight to Duluth after the series to take a class and meet their future UMD teammates.
Despite being almost a thousand miles from Eden, Iafallo said he felt at home in Duluth, thanks to Toninato.
"It felt like family right when we got there," Iafallo said. "We went fishing with his family. We've felt like brothers throughout this whole process at UMD."
Iafallo and Toninato have combined for 101 goals and 110 assists in 301 combined games at UMD. This season they have a combined 36 goals and 43 assists with both appearing in all 41 games.
Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said when he originally recruited the players, he never thought of them as linemates. It wasn't until he saw how effective they were in Fargo -- they combined for 52 goals and 67 assists in 2012-13 -- that he decided to put them together as freshmen.
"They had a lot of success together in Fargo, so when you're bringing them both in at the same time, I'm not going to screw that up," Sandelin said. "You just keep playing them together."
Sandelin has separated them at times over the years. There we concerns at times they'd become too comfortable together, Sandelin said.
UMD began the season with Toninato, a center, and Iafallo, a left wing, playing on separate lines, but that only lasted four games. Sandelin reunited them in Week 3, and since then they've been thick as thieves, nigh inseparable.
"We always seem to go back to those two because of their chemistry," Sandelin said. "And I think they love playing together. I think they both complement each other very well. So it's been pretty easy. And we've just had to find a right winger for those guys."
The perfect complement has proved to be freshman Joey Anderson, who has 12 goals and 24 assists in 38 games.
Together, the trio has not only been an offensive force on the ice, but the line Sandelin turns to in order to shut down the opposition's top line. Toninato, Iafallo and Anderson are a combined plus-58 this year.
"They're a great college line, and I think maybe the best line in the country," Montgomery said. "You've just got to know when they're out there and match their intensity. Their intensity, I think, fuels that team."
This article is written by Matt Wellens from Duluth News Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.