ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota Duluth’s last trip to the Xcel Energy Center wasn’t pleasant.
Three weeks ago, the Bulldogs, the third seed in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, lost 3-1 to Denver in the semifinals and then 4-1 to North Dakota in the consolation game, putting their NCAA tournament hopes in jeopardy.
In both games, on the big stage, the young UMD squad allowed early goals and never recovered.
After squeaking into the tournament, things got off to a similar start in the West Regional against Minnesota State, but that time the Bulldogs were able to erase a 2-0 deficit and come back with a 3-2 overtime win.
Since then, Minnesota Duluth has flipped the script, getting early leads on Air Force and now Ohio State and then relying on its young defensive corps to preserve a late one-goal lead.
Five rookies — Scott Perunovich, Dylan Samberg, Mikey Anderson, Matt Anderson and Louie Roehl — plus sophomore Nick Wolff, have played with poise under pressure.
As a result, the Bulldogs will play in their second consecutive national championship game after a 2-1 victory over Ohio State.
“It’s been fun to watch that whole group grow,” said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin. “It’s been a learning curve. But they relish those [close] games. They don’t panic. We let them make mistakes early. We knew we were going to have to play all of those kids.
“It’s been fun. We’re reaping the benefits.”
Roehl and Matt Anderson combined for the Bulldogs’ first goal, and after Jared Thomas made it 2-0 a minute later, UMD kept Ohio State off the board until a power-play goal by the Buckeyes midway through the third.
It was another nail-biter for Minnesota Duluth. But its young defense and goaltender Hunter Shepard preserved the win.
“It’s always hard to put teams away,” said Roehl. “They fight for their season. When we try to end teams, they make a big push but I think we kind of weathered the storm well. And our defense has been great.”
It’s been an astounding feat for UMD, getting to the title game with such a young defensive squad.
“It’s pretty remarkable getting back to this game,” said Thomas. “Obviously, last year we had a much older group. Expectations were super high. And this year was the complete opposite, I guess.
“We had a young group. We had to figure out our identity and how we wanted to play and how we wanted to win hockey games.”
Sandelin echoed Thomas’ comments.
“We knew we had some good freshmen coming in,” he said. “We had big question marks, there’s no question about that. So I think even with a lot of people, there was doubt. And it’s something we talked about. I talked about it at length with some of our older players that trust us.
“But it takes time for those kids to get used to college hockey. Every weekend was a new experience for our freshmen.”
And now this group, gaining more experience and confidence each game, is playing for the national title.
“We sat here three weeks ago, and we thought our season was done,” said Sandelin. “It would have sucked for our seniors because we didn’t give ourselves a chance to win those games.
“But we got lucky and here we are.”