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From Just Barely In to Champion: Minnesota Duluth Wins National Title

Matt Dewkett

ST. PAUL – All it took was one-thousandth of a point in the RPI and Pairwise.

UMD was beaten twice in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff three weeks ago and needed a lot of things to go their way in order to get in by the slimmest of margins over archrival Minnesota.

Somehow, all of that happened and the Bulldogs were able to sneak into the NCAA Tournament in the unlikeliest of ways. Following the selection show, head coach Scott Sandelin gathered his team together.

The adjustments physically and mentally worked, and now here they stand on top of the college hockey world once again.

Copying their formula from Thursday, Minnesota-Duluth built another two-goal first-period lead and played tremendous defense to keep Notre Dame off balance all night, and the Bulldogs beat the Fighting Irish 2-1 on Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center to win their second national championship.

“Obviously, we used the same MO the last three games to win three games in a row,” Sandelin said. “But couldn’t be more proud of our team, the way these guys battled and grew and grew together.”

Seven years ago, UMD won their first title…in St. Paul. History repeated itself, and Sandelin is enjoying this one just as much as he enjoyed his first one.

“It’s a special championship for the program,” he said. “I was fortunate to be part of the first one but this one is just as special. They never get old.”

As for winning it in the X, with a mostly UMD crowd of 18,303 roaring around him?

“It was awesome. It was awesome. I like playing here. This is great,” Sandelin said.

The Fighting Irish, who had won 15 games in a row earlier in the season, were appearing in their first national championship game since 2008 and second overall. Head coach Jeff Jackson, who also led the team in that previous appearance, had high praise for the Bulldogs.

“Congratulations to Duluth and Scott. They played a hell of a game,” Jackson said. “And obviously when they made the tournament, they became that team of destiny that you’re always hoping to be at the end of the year. So hats off to them.”

Seniors stepping up was the key to the Bulldogs taking a 2-0 first intermission lead for the second time in the Frozen Four. Duluth was on the board first for the nation-leading 28th time of the year after Jade Miller picked up a neutral-zone turnover and passed to a streaking Karson Kuhlman, who connected from the right circle at 9:06.

“It was a good play. I think Jader got a stick on a puck and I was able to turn in transition quick and sneak one by [Morris’s] glove,” Kuhlman said.

It was the 4th time in as many games in the tournament that the Irish surrendered the game’s first goal. Their deficit was doubled late in the first as Duluth went up by a pair after Karson Kuhlman won a battle along the boards and fed Jared Thomas, who skated to the side of the net and beat Notre Dame goaltender Cale Morris on a terrible angle.

“We just wanted to get pucks on this guy from everywhere, and it was just fortunate for me to find a little hole there and have it sneak in,” Thomas said.

Not only were the Irish down a pair after 20 minutes, but they also had to kill a late first-period hooking penalty by forward Mike O’Leary. They had their work cut out for them.

“I think we knew we just had to kill that one off and try and get some momentum going our way,” Notre Dame forward Andrew Oglevie said.

Like they have all tournament and all season, Notre Dame had an answer. They were able to kill the penalty, and the Irish later cut the lead in half with a big power-play goal in the second period by Oglevie. Despite being outshot 18-8 in the period, ND stayed within striking distance by generating better scoring chances on the forecheck and some big saves by Morris, who won the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goaltender on Friday night.

But the Irish, who were outshot for the 27th time in 40 games this season, couldn’t complement Morris’s effort on the other end of the ice. They only put five shots on Bulldogs goaltender Hunter Shepard in the final 20 minutes and they had 12 more blocked. Notre Dame just couldn’t get the UMD defense spread out to set up offensively for most of the night, and a season in which they won both the regular season and tournament championships in their inaugural year in the Big Ten came up just short of the program’s first national title.

Despite the loss, there’s a lot that Jackson can still be happy about-and a lot that he can look forward to as well.

“Extremely proud of our guys, especially our senior class that led us to a great season,” he said. “We’ll get back at it and take some time to reflect. We got a big senior class to replace and a big freshman class coming in. It’ll certainly be a different look in our team, but we’ve got a lot of good players and fairly good group of leadership coming back.”

Not long before Kuhlman’s first-period goal, freshman 4th-line forward Kobe Roth took a hit from Notre Dame defenseman Justin Wade and appeared to have his skate caught in the ice before he spiraled into the boards and fell down in a heap. Roth had to be helped off the ice and into the locker room. Kuhlman was in Roth’s place on the 4th line at the time of his goal.

Sandelin stated after the game that there was no official diagnosis other than that it was a lower body injury, and that Roth was in a walking boot. Roth did get to enjoy the celebration with his teammates, however, as he was helped back onto the ice after the final seconds came off the clock.

Minnesota-Duluth was left for dead less than a month ago. Now after making the most of their second chance, they will have a much more enjoyable ride back up Interstate 35…with the school’s second national championship in tow.

“I think coming down to Xcel Energy Center for the NCHC Tournament there was a good wake-up call for us. We got a taste of what playoff hockey was like. Got punched in the nose a little there and was fortunate enough to make the [NCAA] tournament and obviously ran with our opportunity,” Kuhlman said.

Scoring summary:

First period:

UMD goal at 9:06: Karson Kuhlman (13). Assisted by Jade Miller (10).

UMD goal at 18:39: Jared Thomas (11). Assisted by Kuhlman (7).

Second period:

ND power-play goal at 7:40: Andrew Oglevie (15). Assisted by Cam Morrison (15) and Jake Evans (33).

Third period:

No scoring.

Power plays: UMD 0-3, ND 1-2.

Shots on goal: UMD 35, ND 20.

All-Frozen Four Team:

Forwards: Karson Kuhlman, Minnesota-Duluth; Jared Thomas, Minnesota-Duluth; Andrew Oglevie, Notre Dame.

Defensemen: Scott Perunovich, Minnesota-Duluth; Jordan Gross, Notre Dame.

Goaltender: Hunter Shepard, Minnesota-Duluth.

Most Outstanding Player: Karson Kuhlman, Minnesota-Duluth.