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SAINT PAUL, MN.
The UMD Bulldogs were already defying the odds just by getting into the NCAA hockey tournament, much less making it to the NCAA Frozen Four. They had defied other rational thought all season, by putting eight freshmen in the lineup, five of them on defense.
There were no traditions or guidelines in their favor, and yet the Bulldogs established a couple traditions of their own to win their second NCAA national men’s hockey championship last Saturday night with a pulsating 2-1 victory over Notre Dame, before 18,303 fans at Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul.
That’s the same rink when the Bulldogs won their only other NCAA title, in 2011. That one was just as unexpected, as the Bulldogs went from being cold enough that Bemidji State knocked them out of the league playoffs before they could reach Xcel, to being sizzling hot and sweeping through the East regional and then knocking off Notre Dame and then Michigan in the Frozen Four. But that team had a few notable horses — Hobey Baker winner Jack Connolly, NHLer Justin Fontaine, red-hot goaltender Kenny Reiter, and NHL winger J.T. Brown, among others.
That team got hot enough to surprise everybody, but the level of surprise was nothing like this UMD team, which simply kept improving, kept working together, showed poise beyond their years, and when what should have been two devastating losses in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff almost eliminated them from NCAA consideration, they snuck back in as the 16th team by 1-10,000th of a Pairwise computer point.
The sweet part was that by getting in, they knocked out old rival Minnesota, and caused 19-year coach Don Lucia to step down, although it didn’t prevent the Golden Gophers boosters from gloating that the Big Ten was the best college hockey league, not the weakest, because they had three of their teams reach the Frozen Four. They wanted four, but UMD prevented that by winning the West regional in dramatic fashion.
UMD fell behind heavy favorite Minnesota State Mankato 2-0, but rallied back to win 3-2 in overtime in the regional semifinals. Then the Bulldogs established their new “signature” winning system — jumping ahead of Air Force Academy 2-0, then hanging on to beat the Falcons 2-1. It wasn’t so much hanging on, though, as playing with poised efficiency to prevent serious scoring threats.
On to Saint Paul, where UMD drew explosive Ohio State. That was good news/bad news for the Bulldogs. The good news was they didn’t have to play Denver, which had beaten them five straight excruciating defensive battles this season; the bad news was that they had to play the Ohio State team that had just overwhelmed Denver 4-1.
Without anything like a planned design, UMD followed the same pattern that worked in the region final. Louie Roehl, one of the prized five freshmen defensemen, caught a pass relayed from Parker Mackay to Mikey Anderson and in to Roehl in the right circle. Roehl quickly unloaded and UMD led 1-0 at 1:53.
Two shifts later, Scott Perunovich, another of those freshman defensemen, spotted senor center Jare Thomas breaking behind the Buckeye defense. Perunovich fired a bullet right onto the tape, and Thomas sailed in, ducking to his right and tucking the puck between goaltender Sean Romeo’s pads. At 3:04, UMD led 2-0.
The shots were 5-0, and went to 17-4 by the end of the first period. UMD was willing to focus on defensive play after that, holding that 2-0 lead until the Buckeyes scored on their second successive power play midway through the third period. But that was all Hunter Shepard and the Bulldogs allowed. When there were only 15 seconds left, a deflected puck went off to the left corner. Dylan Samberg, yet another of those freshmen D, was battling two OSU forecheckers when something that might have made sense to him as a kid on the outdoor rink in Hermantown popped into his head. Samberg dropped to his knees, and on all fours, he used his hands to sweep the puck left, then right, then left again, and right again — until the clock went to 0:00. It was brilliant, and it was winning strategy by a freshman.
“I looked up and at 3:04, we were down 2-zip,” said Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik, long-time UMD assistant. “We haven’t done that all year. UMD’s defense plays a lot like we want to play. They use their speed and take away time and space.”
That sent the Bulldogs into Saturday night’s championship game, against Notre Dame. Time for the same “game-plan” — the first period lead. Only this time, it took the magic touch of coach Scott Sandelin. Freshman winger Kobe Roth was slammed into the side boards and broke a bone in his ankle. As he was helped off, Sandelin pondered whether to shorten his bench or take a chance on double-shifting somebody.
He decided on the latter, and who better than tireless Karson Kuhlman, captain and constant hustler. Kuhlman was all for it. On his first shift out with the fourth line, Kuhlman knocked the puck free and center Jade Miller got it and fed up to the waiting Kuhlman at the far blue line near the right boards. Kuhlman was open enough to skate in a few strides, started to wind for a slap shot, then changed his mind. He was at the top of the right circle by then, and he fired a hard wrist shot that beat goalie Cale Morris to the upper right at 9:06.
Late in the period, back with his normal centerman Jered Thomas, and the two were forechecking like fiends in the right corner. Thomas got a piece of the puck, then Kuhlman nudged it back ahead, and Thomas whirled and headed for the goal. No angle to shoot at, no teammate to pass to, so it was time for another one of those Hermantown rink-rat plays. Thomas fired a shot at the goalie, and the puck glanced in off his leg at 18:39.
That made it 2-0, and the Bulldogs put a new twist on holding the lead. Tljhey gave up a power play goal to Andrew Oglevie midway through the second period, but they outshot the Fighting Irish 18-8 in the middle period. And in the third, UMD outshot Notre Dame 7-5 for a 35-20 edge in the game. Astounding, that these poised, patient freshmen on defense almost casually forced the Irish to the outside, took the puck away, cleared the zone without any hint of panic — or even urgency — and held the Fighting Irish to 5 shots in the third period.
“We knew we had to try to get them in the second period,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. “Because if we got to the third, they’re a shut-down team.”
“We have a bunch of unsung heroes,” said Thomas, who scored only 11 goals this season, but they include the game-winning goals in both the NCAA semifinals and final.
“We got punched in the nose a little in the NCHC tournament,” said Kuhlman. “But we had really good depth up front, and lines one-through-four can all score,”
Maybe. But Kuhlman was named most outstanding player at the Frozen Four after his goal and assist in the final game, and on Tuesday — the day when Kuhlman also signed a pro contract to join the Boston Bruins organization.
Adding to the rich memories these Bulldogs will take into summertime is that UMD scored 47 first-period goals this season, most in the nation. UMD finished 25-16-3, and the 16 losses are the most of any NCAA champion in history. That’s what a season-long learning trek will do for you.
With the Bulldogs facing three Big Ten teams in the Frozen Four, causing Big Ten observers everywhere to declare that league the best. I suggested to a couple of UMD players that they should win the two games to take the championship, and then say — Big Ten? Is that all you got?
UMD coach Scott Sandelin wasn’t into the heckling, although he did say he got tired of having most of the pre-tournament questions dealing with attempts to validate the Big Ten. And he did mention that he’s going to enjoy this title for a good part of the summer.
Then it will be time to get ready for another season. UMD’s opening game, by the way, is against....Minnesota on October 6.