This wasn’t supposed to be Minnesota Duluth’s year.
Not with seven seniors from last year’s NCAA men’s hockey runner-up squad exhausting their eligibility. Not with two of the team’s top four scorers and its iron man goaltender leaving school early for professional hockey.
And certainly not after sitting at 7-9-2 on Dec. 8 after giving up seven goals in a loss at Nebraska Omaha.
But there the Bulldogs were Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center, hurling their gloves and sticks into the air, rushing to the boards and piling on each other in a huge group embrace after defeating Notre Dame 2-1 in the Frozen Four championship game for the program’s second national title.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our team, the way these guys battled and grew and grew together,’’ said coach Scott Sandelin, who guided the Bulldogs (25-16-3) to their first NCAA title since 2011, also at Xcel Energy Center.
That growing took place throughout an up-and-down season that saw Minnesota Duluth take those early lumps as freshmen manned five of the top six defenseman spots. Key to that were the quick maturation of Scott Perunovich, the bell cow of the freshman D corps who led the Bulldogs in scoring and earned first-team All-America honors, and the leadership of captain Karson Kuhlman and fellow senior Jared Thomas, the two goal-scorers in the championship game.
“We had a roller-coaster first half — took a lot away from it as teaching moments, especially for our younger guys, and we kind of anticipated that,’’ said Kuhlman, who was named most outstanding player of both the Frozen Four and the NCAA West Regional. “In the second half, we went on a little run.’’
The run included five wins in six games to start January, followed by another 5-1 stretch to close the regular season. That left the Bulldogs in fourth place in the rugged NCHC, and they swept Western Michigan in the first round of the conference playoffs to earn a trip to St. Paul for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.
What happened that St. Patrick’s Day weekend nearly prevented the Bulldogs from making a return trip to St. Paul. UMD lost to Denver in the semifinals and North Dakota in the third-place game, and in each contest it took late penalties that doomed any shot to rally, irking Sandelin. “I was disappointed not so much in the losses, but I was disappointed in how we finished those games,’’ he said. “… We never gave ourselves a chance.’’
The losses pushed the Bulldogs to the brink of elimination, but other conference title games went their way that night and nudged them just ahead of the Gophers and into the NCAA tournament field as the final at-large selection. They weren’t about to blow a second chance.
“Coming down to Xcel Energy Center for the NCHC tournament was a good wake-up call for us,’’ Kuhlman said. “We got a taste of what playoff hockey was like. Got punched in the nose a little there.’’
Bloodied but not broken, UMD started its playoff run in Sioux Falls, where it rallied from a two-goal deficit to beat Minnesota State Mankato 3-2 in overtime — after having a first goal in OT overturned — and plucky Air Force 2-1 to win the West Regional. That win over the Falcons showed the formula — and the exact score — the Bulldogs would use to beat Ohio State in the national semifinals and Notre Dame in the final: Get an early lead, lean on goalie Hunter Shepard and hold on late. Shepard, who replaced 2017 freshman standout Hunter Miska, gave up only five goals in NCAA tournament play and only two in the Frozen Four.
“If we needed to win the game 2-1, we would win the game 2-1,’’ said Thomas, whose first-period goal on an assist from Kuhlman on Saturday ended up being the winner.
With that coming true again, the Bulldogs could celebrate.
“They cared for each other and they won for each other,’’ Sandelin said.
Added Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, “They became that team of destiny that you’re always hoping to be at the end of the year.’’