Last in, last standing: Minnesota Duluth defeats Notre Dame for second title

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Jared Thomas (22) celebrates Minnesota Duluth’s second goal against Notre Dame (photo: Jim Rosvold).

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Team of Destiny, Minnesota Duluth, closed out an improbable run through the NCAA tournament and earned the school’s second national title with a 2-1 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday.

The final at-large team in the NCAA field, qualifying by one ten-thousandth of a point in the Ratings Percentage Index, became the first team ever to win four one-goal tournament games, the final three all coming by identical 2-1 margins to earn the trophy in front of a partisan Bulldogs crowd of 18,303 at the Xcel Energy Center.

“I couldn’t be more excited for this group and more proud of this group for regrouping and doing what they’ve done,” said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin, whose team three weeks prior lost back to back games in the same building during the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and nearly played themselves out of the tournament.

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Sandelin’s club may have felt like Saturday was déjà vu all over again, as it used the exact same blueprint to manufacture the victory. For the third straight game, the Bulldogs jumped out to a 2-0 lead, watched the opponent climb back within a goal, and then relied on a stalwart defenses ability to shut things down.

In fact, on Saturday, after Minnesota Duluth goaltender Hunter Shepard (19 saves) stopped Colin Theisen with 7:03 remaining in regulation, he never had to make another save as blocked shots and strong puck skills shut down the Irish late.

“That shows our mentality in the third period when we have the lead,” senior Blake Young said of Duluth’s shut-down defense. “Guys buy into the system. We talked in the locker room [between periods] about getting pucks deep. The guys stepped up huge tonight.”

Despite the fact that most tout the Bulldogs’ young defense, one that features five freshmen and a sophomore, it was two seniors that contributed the Duluth offense.

After fourth-line winger Kobe Roth left the game early with a broken ankle, captain Karson Kuhlman was given the responsibility to double shift with the second line and the fourth line. He was just seconds into his first shift with Jade Miller and Bill Exell when he found the back of the net.

Kuhlman took advantage of a neutral-zone turnover and, skating on the right, fired a quick-release shot that fooled Notre Dame goaltender Cale Morris (33 saves) to ignite the crowd at 9:06.

Kuhlman finished the game with a goal and an assist and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

“That was the first shift [with Miller and Exell],” he said. “But I think that just goes to show how much depth we have, how much trust we have in those other two guys when Roth went down.

“Obviously, in the national championship game you gotta include everybody. All four lines have to contribute there.”

The Irish put pressure on the Bulldogs’ net late in the frame, but before the first period ended it was Minnesota Duluth that extended the lead. Another senior, Jared Thomas, won a puck battle in the right corner, walked out and fired a low shot that deflected off Morris’ left leg and into the goal.

In the second, special teams became the major focus. Minnesota Duluth began the period with back-to-back power plays but Notre Dame performed yeoman’s work to kill the penalties. Shortly thereafter, the Irish got two power plays of their own and cashed in on the second.

Andrew Oglevie, who opened the scoring on the power play in Thursday’s semifinal, repeated that feat on Saturday, redirecting a feed from Cam Morrison through Shepard’s five hole at 7:40.

Notre Dame nearly tied the game later in the frame when Oglevie was left open on the right side. Shepard, however, pushed left to right and flashed the right pad to stop the shot and maintain the 2-1 lead through two.

That, though, led only to Minnesota Duluth doing what it does best — closing out games.

“We needed to try and tie it in the second,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. “The third period was really a shut-down period. They didn’t give us a lot.”

The national championship was Minnesota Duluth’s second as a men’s ice hockey program, having also won its first title in St. Paul in 2011.

The Bulldogs also surpassed Wisconsin for the most losses by a national champion, 16 — two more than Wisconsin’s 14 in 1981.

“It’s special,” said Kuhlman. “I couldn’t be more proud of that group of guys in there. Roller coaster first half, took a lot away from it as teaching moments, especially for our younger guys, and we kind of anticipated that.

“[We] got punched in the nose a little there and was fortunate enough to make the [NCAA] tournament. But obviously we ran with our opportunity.”

All-tournament team

Forward: Karson Kuhlman (Minnesota Duluth)
Forward: Jared Thomas (Minnesota Duluth)
Forward: Andrew Oglevie (Notre Dame)
Defense: Scott Perunovich (Minnesota Duluth)
Defense: Jordan Gross (Notre Dame)
Goaltender: Hunter Shepard (Minnesota Duluth)
Most Outstanding Player: Kuhlman (Minnesota Duluth)