Congratulations go out to Minnesota-Duluth for winning this year's Final Five, despite starting the playoffs as the 7th seeded team. They are the first team forced to play in the Thursday play-in game to still win the tournament. I'm not really surprised that finally happened. The middle of the pack in this conference is so close together that it was bound to happen eventually. It's still an impressive feat to knock off three of the top 20 teams in the country on consecutive nights.
It's a special night for Duluth as a team, but there's also a couple individuals that you really have to feel happy for.
First is head coach Scott Sandelin. Sandelin had--maybe rightfully so--come under a lot of criticism from local fans in recent years for the Dogs lack of success. Since making the Frozen Four in 2004, UMD had four consecutive losing seasons, many of which were downright embarassing by the end of the season. He had star players telling recruits not come to Duluth. He lost some star local kids to the Gophers, which never makes Bulldog fans happy. This year was better, but some tough questions were still going to be asked when heading into the playoffs, it looked like Duluth would finish in the bottom half of the league and miss out on the NCAA tournament, especially when both were the result of a spectacular flameout at home to 9th place Alaska-Anchorage. But a five-game winning streak at the perfect time and a trip to the NCAA tournament silences all those critics.
Second is Final Five MVP Alex Stalock. Stalock had a great season, and has had a great career at Minnesota-Duluth. But prior to the WCHA playoffs, it looked like he might be remembered for the opportunity he gave away that may have ended his team's season prematurely. With UMD trailing 4-3 in the third period to Alaska-Anchorage, Stalock took a stupid, selfish slashing penalty. Anchorage converted on the powerplay to take a critical two-goal lead. UMD came within one goal, but ended up losing the game, and had it not been for Stalock's heroic effort in the WCHA playoffs, it may have been the one moment Duluth fans pointed to as the reason they didn't make the tournament. Now, Stalock will instead be remembered for one of the greatest goaltending performances in WCHA history.
I think the person I'm happiest for is Jack Connolly. Jack Connolly had played in three championship games on the XCel Energy Center ice prior to tonight's Final Five championship. He lost all three of them. His Duluth Marshall Hilltoppers finished runner-up in the Class A state high school tournament in his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons.
After the final defeat to St. Thomas Academy in 2007, I got a chance to talk to Connolly for a couple minutes after the game. You couldn't help but feel bad for a kid that had had his heartbroken three straight times and just wanted one more chance. That next chance wasn't guaranteed for him either. He had talked to the Bulldogs a little bit, but there was nothing set in stone. He was hoping to just catch on with a USHL team, or possibily go to the NAHL if he couldn't secure a roster spot.
It took a lot of hard work, but two years and 11 days later, he got another shot and finally got to leave the XCel Center ice as a champion, after scoring his team's third goal to all but cement the victory for UMD.
It was a historic and unforgettable weekend for UMD and their fans. They have to be the hottest team in the country heading into next week's NCAA tournament. The odds of them keeping things going and running off another four victories probably aren't in their favor, but then again, the odds weren't in their favor three times this weekend, and they came out as winners every time.