Karson Kuhlman saw the situation and knew his role.
As senior captain of Minnesota Duluth men's hockey team, the Esko, Minn., native knew the Bulldogs suffered heavy losses from last year's NCAA runner-up team. Gone were 10 players, including five of the team's top six scorers and a goalie that played 39 of 42 games.
Entering the program was a class of talented freshmen, and Kuhlman was tasked with integrating that group.
So far, so good for Minnesota Duluth, which has overcome a couple of hiccups — a 3-7 stretch in November and December, and a 1-4 spell in late January and early February — to solidify its spot in the NCHC standings and bolster its NCAA tournament hopes. Entering this weekend's final regular-season series vs. Nebraska Omaha in Duluth, the Bulldogs (18-13-3, 12-10 NCHC) are comfortably in third place in the NCHC and sit No. 8 in the PairWise Ratings, making them a near lock for the NCAA tournament.
Kuhlman, who had a hat trick in Friday's 8-0 drubbing of Western Michigan, is part of the reason why.
"This year more than others, I've tapped into more of a leadership role," said, Kuhlman, who has 10 goals and five assists.
Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin appreciates the senior's selflessness.
"He's been awesome," Sandelin said. "… Early in the year there were some frustrations, probably, with not having the results. He's really grown, too, and has done an outstanding job. His play speaks for itself."
If Minnesota Duluth is to make another run at the Frozen Four, which will be April 5 and 7 at Xcel Energy Center, the freshmen must continue to contribute. Defenseman Scott Perunovich leads the team with 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists), forward Nick Swaney (5-15 — 20) and defenseman Mikey Anderson (4-15 — 19) are fifth and sixth, respectively. Add defenseman Dylan Samberg, a second-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets, and the Bulldogs have a nice, young core.
"The second half certainly has been better for us," Sandelin said. "The first half, not only having some young guys getting acclimated to college hockey, it was a tough month for injuries in November and we were missing guys for world juniors."
Freshmen aren't the only newcomers contributing. Junior forward Peter Krieger, a transfer from Alaska Fairbanks, has 10 goals and 16 assists as the top-line center. He, too, has fit in quickly.
"We knew the guys we had coming back and the guys coming in who we all knew could contribute," said Krieger, an Oakdale native. "It was more being excited and anxious to see how it was all going to shape together."
Then there's sophomore goalie Hunter Shepard, who had the herculean task of replacing standout Hunter Miska, who signed with the Arizona Coyotes after one outstanding season in Duluth.
"The second half [of the season], he's been our best player. He's given us a chance to win every night," Sandelin said of Shepard, a former Grand Rapids standout who is 18-11-1. "He solidified a position that going into the year was a question mark."
Will it all be enough to return to the Frozen Four in St. Paul, where UMD won the national title in 2011?
"The goal was: Let's be better at Christmas than we were at the beginning of the year, let's be better at the end of the year than we were at Christmas," Sandelin said. "We're slowly heading in that direction."