When his turn came to hold the NCAA championship trophy, Karson Kuhlman lifted it over his head and let out a yell. He made the heavy prize appear as if it weighed nothing at all, which wasn't a surprise to his Minnesota Duluth teammates.
The Bulldogs' senior captain carried a substantial burden with grace throughout the season, providing a steady rudder to a young, green group. Saturday, Kuhlman took on an even heavier load in a 2-1 title-game victory over Notre Dame. The Esko native scored UMD's first goal, assisted on its second and did double duty for much of the game, taking shifts on the fourth line when winger Kobe Roth was injured early in the first period.
Kuhlman provided energy, grit and leadership throughout the game, earning the Frozen Four's most outstanding player award. His teammates said he didn't give the Bulldogs anything he hadn't given them in every game this year, which was all he wanted to do in his final college season.
"This is the best day of my life,'' said Kuhlman, who had one goal and two assists in the Frozen Four and three shots on goal in the title game. "This is something you dream about as a little kid. I couldn't be more proud of these guys, for everything we overcame this year.
"It's something I've kind of prided myself on, doing everything I can for this team. All four years, I just wanted to do whatever I could to help us win. It paid off tonight. This is unbelievable.''
The game was the 166th of Kuhlman's career, tying the program record set by 2012 Hobey Baker winner Jack Connolly — a key member of the 2011 team that won the Bulldogs' first NCAA title. Kuhlman finished as one of six UMD seniors to participate in four NCAA tournaments, the best stretch in program history, and two Frozen Fours.
When Roth was injured 6 minutes, 21 seconds into the game, Kuhlman filled in for him and scored on his first shift with the fourth line. He helped force a Notre Dame turnover in the neutral zone and faked a shot to fool Irish goaltender Cale Morris before beating him with a wrist shot.
Kuhlman combined with his regular second-line partners for UMD's second goal, setting up Jared Thomas. He also played on the power play and penalty kill, and late in the game, he lay down in front of the Bulldogs' net to stop Notre Dame from scoring during a goalmouth scrum.
"I've said it so many times: That's why he's our captain,'' Thomas said. "We all know what he brings. We wanted to be the big difference-makers in this game. We got the two goals, and [Kuhlman] is a big part of why we're standing on top right now.''
Afterward, Kuhlman clutched a piece of the goal net he had cut as a souvenir and meandered around the Xcel Energy Center ice. Like his teammates, he didn't want to leave.
"All we needed was a chance,'' he said. "It feels pretty good.''