ST. PAUL, Minn. — While some may consider Saturday’s NCAA championship game a battle of David versus Goliath, the more appropriate description of the two remaining teams might be the “haves” versus the “have-nots.”
The “haves,” of course, are the Michigan Wolverines, who will look to expand on their NCAA record of nine national titles. The “have-nots” then, are the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, representing a school playing in the title tilt for the first time since 1984 and in search of the program’s first-ever NCAA championship.
Both clubs met with the media one final time on Friday, still relishing in their semifinal victories — Duluth’s a 4-3 win over Notre Dame and Michigan a 2-0 upset of the team most thought would be carrying the national championship trophy on Saturday night, North Dakota.
One thing that was clear: While each team is happy to be here at this point, walking away without the title would be a disappointment.
“I always felt that, growing up in Hibbing, Minn., and watching UMD, the players and playing against them, that I felt that this program could win,” Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. “It’s been some good years, and some not-so-good years. But we’ve got a great group of kids, we’ve had a lot of great kids. A lot of things have to go right, but my goal since I’ve got here was to try and get to this point, and hopefully have a chance to win.”
“There is hope for senior citizens,” joked the 71-year-old Michigan bench boss, Red Berenson, who was happy to admit that his team beat a superior North Dakota team to reach the title game. “If you go back 25 years, I would say that Michigan was the No. 1 seed going into the tournament or certainly the regional probably in half of those and never got past the first game. So I have lived with disappointments, and then we have also had a few lucky wins, like we did last night, so I have seen it all.”
Both coaches admitted that even Friday was a little bit early to talk strategy on what it will take to beat their opponent. But from a quick look at each team’s games in this year’s NCAA tournament to date, you can find a few obstacles the clubs will need to overcome.
Michigan will need to stem the tide of the Bulldogs’ power play. Minnesota-Duluth has scored eight times with the man advantage in the three games of the tournament, including three goals on the power play on Thursday night.
The Wolverines also need to shut down Duluth’s top line of Jack and Mike Connolly and the often overlooked right wing Justin Fontaine.
The Bulldogs’ job will be even more direct. They have to do what North Dakota couldn’t on Thursday: solve goaltender Shawn Hunwick.
“[Hunwick] was outstanding for them,” said Sandelin. “When he needed to make a save, he was there. We’ve got to find a way to certainly challenge him a little bit more offensively, and find a way to beat him. He was good [Thursday], he was very good.”
While there are a number of great story lines for both teams, possibly one of the best is the story of Hunwick himself. A career emergency backup, Hunwick got a chance to start a game for the first time late last season and has rode the wave ever since.
“A year ago I would have told you there was no chance that Hunwick [would be playing for a national championship],” said Berenson. “Yet he nearly got us to the Frozen Four last year when he had to come in late season as an emergency. He had never started a Division I game.
“He practiced for three years as our third goalie. Never complained once. The players loved him. And when he got his chance to play, they rallied around him.
“And even this year when he was competing for the starting job and [Bryan] Hogan was healthy, it looked like Hogan was going to take over the starting job and Hogan got hurt again. Hunwick came in, got a shot, and he’s played every game since, and here we are.”
If anyone can solve Hunwick, of course, it is Minnesota-Duluth’s top line. The pair of Connollys and Fontaine have been electric since the NCAA tournament began, combining for six goals and nine assists, including factoring in three of the Bulldogs’ four goals on Thursday.
Maybe incorrectly, Duluth will carry around the moniker of underdogs heading into the title game, if for nothing more than the tally of titles that reads Michigan 9, Minnesota-Duluth 0. That, though, isn’t something that this team minds embracing.
“We haven’t been here a lot,” said Sandelin. “We do have a strong tradition; we’ve had a lot of great players. When you’re only in this Frozen Four for the fourth time, not a lot of people may know about you. Hopefully, they do now.”
If the Bulldogs move from the category of have-nots to haves, plenty of people will know about this team.