ST. PAUL, Minn. — When you’re playing a big game on a big stage, you have to love a fast start, and in Thursday’s national semifinal between Minnesota Duluth and Ohio State, it was an explosive beginning that meant everything to the Bulldogs.
Two goals in the opening 3 minutes, 4 seconds was all the offense Minnesota Duluth needed as the Bulldogs held on for a 2-1 victory to advance past the Buckeyes. They will play in the national championship game for the second straight season, against Notre Dame.
Playing less than two hours away from their Duluth campus, the Bulldogs got goals from defensemen Louie Roehl at 1:53 and Jared Thomas at 3:04 to turn the Xcel Energy Center crowd electric.
Roehl, who never scored a single goal in high school, buried his third collegiate goal by taking a feed from defensive partner Matt Anderson. Juggling the puck for a millisecond seemed to change the reaction time for Ohio State goaltender Sean Romeo (26 saves).
“Everyone in the arena thought [Anderson] was going to shoot the puck and he slid it over to me,” said Roehl. “I picked my head up and it took a little long to get the release off but I just made sure the goalie wasn’t there and I shot it in.”
Just 71 seconds later, Thomas took a nifty feed from captain Karson Kuhlman, broke in alone on Romeo and deked to slide the puck five hole.
From there, it then became a story of defense as the Bulldogs clamped down and allowed only a single power-play goal in the third period to advance.
“We had plenty of chances and couldn’t get that [third goal] to kind of step on their throat there,” said Thomas. “All in all, we were defending well. We killed off some big penalties until they sneaked one in there but it was a great 60 minutes for us.”
The fast start was beyond desirable for the Bulldogs but the other side of that coin was surprising to Ohio State and coach Steve Rohlik. This was just their second Frozen Four game in program history and the first in 20 years. It seemed like it took just long enough to get the jitters out of their collective system to put themselves in a hole they never escaped.
“Our guys felt like we were on our heels right away,” said Rohlik. “I couldn’t have predicted that. We probably had our best last 10 days of practice. We felt like we were focused and ready to go.
“But to get smacked in the face, it wakes you up.”
Waking up, Ohio State did, but not until 20 minutes of the game were in the books. The Buckeyes managed just four shots to Duluth’s 17 in the opening frame and never threatened offensively until they got onto their first full power play in the second.
Given a man advantage opportunity at 7:30, Ohio State’s Ronnie Hein was looking at an open net before Roehl slid across the crease to block the opportunity.
It was the power play, though, that drew the Buckeyes within a goal.
Wyatt Ege attempted to tee up a blast from the point, only to have his stick break. When Thomas attempted to clear the puck, he instead made contact with the broken stick and the puck moved to Tanner Laczynski’s stick.
Curling back, Laczynski fired a shot that deflected off Thomas and past Hunter Shepard (19 saves) with 10:33 remaining.
But the Minnesota Duluth defense, one that is comprised of five freshmen and a sophomore, put in its best performance down the stretch, allowing just one shot on goal from that point on to close out the victory.
The Bulldogs, who won their only national title on the Xcel Energy Center ice in 2011, will have an opportunity to repeat that feat on Saturday. This for a team that three Saturdays ago thought it might have missed the NCAA tournament altogether until a perfect storm of results gave it the final at-large bid.
At this point, Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin acknowledges this is a team making the most of its second life.
“We sat here three weeks ago and we thought our season was done,” said Sandelin. “We went back and got lucky and it gave us a second life. Here we are.”