The last team that made it into the NCAA men’s hockey tournament is the last team standing.
And the last team celebrating.
The Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, who three weeks ago were all but resigned to not making the 16-team field, defeated Notre Dame 2-1 in the NCAA Frozen Four championship game on Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center, giving coach Scott Sandelin and his program a nice bookend to the national title they won in 2011, also in St. Paul.
“Obviously, it’s a special championship for our program,’’ Sandelin said. “They never get old.’’
In winning the championship after falling a goal short against Denver in last year’s NCAA final, the Bulldogs played a simple children’s game: Follow the leader.
Senior captain Karson Kuhlman had a goal and an assist in the first period, sending the Bulldogs on their way to victory in front of a roaring crowd of 18,303. Jared Thomas added a goal, and goalie Hunter Shepard, in his first season as a starter, made 19 saves.
The championship victory capped an improbable NCAA tournament run for Minnesota Duluth (25-16-3), which looked as if it would miss the tournament after it went 0-2 in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff. But a series of conference tournament title games went the Bulldogs’ way on March 17, and they took full advantage by winning four consecutive one-goal games en route to the championship.
“We got a second life, getting into the tournament, and we didn’t want to waste it,’’ Thomas said. “We were playing playoff hockey pretty much the last month of the season. Maybe that helped us. I can’t even put into words how I feel right now.’’
Andrew Oglevie scored a second-period power-play goal for Notre Dame (28-10-2), which fell to 0-2 in NCAA title games. There would be no late-game heroics for the Fighting Irish, who won their Frozen Four semifinal over Michigan on a goal with 5.2 seconds left in the third period.
Notre Dame pulled goalie Cale Morris with 1:35 left, but the Bulldogs didn’t let the Fighting Irish get a shot on goal, sending the crowd into bedlam after the puck trickled out of the zone after the final faceoff with 2.1 seconds left.
“They became that team of destiny that you’re hoping to be at the end of the year,’’ Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said.
All three Frozen Fours played at Xcel Energy Center have been won by Minnesota teams. The Gophers won the first of those national titles, 4-3 in overtime against Maine in 2002, and the Bulldogs have followed with the past two.
“I like playing here,’’ Sandelin said.
It was clear from the start that the Bulldogs were dialed-in early, pressuring the Fighting Irish. But with 13:39 left in the first period, UMD winger Kobe Roth took a hard hit from Notre Dame defenseman Justin Wade and was lost for the game because of a lower leg injury. Kuhlman, double-shifting, jumped in to Roth’s spot and gave the Bulldogs a 1-0 lead with a blast from the circle over goalie Morris’ left shoulder at 9:06 of the first period.
“In a national championship game, all four lines have to contribute,’’ said Kuhlman, a senior from Esko, Minn., who was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
Thomas made it 2-0 for UMD with 1:21 left in the first when he stole the puck, took a pass from Kuhlman and fired a wide-angle shot from the goal line past Morris.
The second period saw Notre Dame begin to rally, and two consecutive penalties gave the Irish momentum. On the second, they cashed in when Oglevie slipped the puck past Shepard five-hole to complete a rush, cutting the lead to 2-1 at 7:40.
Shepard, however, didn’t waver.
“We needed to try and tie the game in the second,’’ Jackson said, “because, once you get to the third period, they’re a shut-down team.’’
The coach was right, because the Bulldogs allowed the Irish only five shots on goal in the third, 20 for the game.
“There was never a panic, never a doubt in our [locker] room,’’ Thomas said. “If we needed to win the game 2-1, we were going to win the game 2-1. You saw it in the third period when we shut them down.’’
That was nowhere more apparent when the Irish pulled Morris, the Mike Richter Award winner as the nation’s top goalie, for an extra attacker. The Bulldogs kept the puck to the perimeter, and defenseman Nick Wolff had a late blocked shot, one of UMD’s 21 for the game.
“Watching that clock, waiting for it to hit triple zeros, then all hell broke loose,’’ said Thomas, a senior from Hermantown. “… You couldn’t have drawn it up any better.’’