ST. PAUL, Minn. — They were last, the final team invited to the NCAA tournament.
On Thursday, however, Minnesota Duluth was first — and second.
Just three minutes into their 2-1 win over Ohio State on Thursday night in the Frozen Four, the Bulldogs had a pair of game-changing goals from Louie Roehl and Jared Thomas.
“You gotta tip your cap to Duluth, but our guys felt we were on our heels right away,” Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik said. “I couldn’t have predicted that. We probably had the best, last 10 days of practice that we’ve had on and off, and really felt like we were focused and ready to go. But you get smacked in the face like that early, it wakes you up.”
A year after reaching the national title game with a group of veterans, Scott Sandelin’s squad didn’t know if it would have the resume to return to the NCAA tournament by season’s end.
The Bulldogs, who feature 10 freshmen, weathered a turbulent regular season, which is why they were the last team picked in the 16-team field.
And they squeezed into the NCAA tournament only after Ohio State lost to Notre Dame in the Big Ten tournament title game, setting off a string of fortuitous events.
But they did not play like an underdog on Thursday night when they stalked Ohio State early and scored twice in the first 3 minutes, 4 seconds of a 2-1 win at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. The Bulldogs will play Notre Dame on Saturday for the men’s hockey national championship (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
They persisted as they have all season, scrapping for another tight win in a run so surprising, Sandelin hesitated as he tried to describe his return to the national title game with his young team.
“I don’t know,” Sandelin said in response to a question about this journey after the win. “You know what, you just don’t know. We knew we had some good freshmen coming in. 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. But we had a good … our forward group, we had a lot of depth coming back. We didn’t have maybe, like I said, the big offensive line or like some teams do, but we had balance. And I think that started to show in the second half. And again we have 26 players on our team and those guys have all contributed this year.”
Minnesota Duluth edged Minnesota, the host of the tournament, by a few tenths of a point in the RPI to secure the final spot in the NCAA tournament. It advanced past Minnesota State, a school a few hours southwest of St. Paul, with a 3-2 overtime victory in the opening round and a 2-1 win against Air Force in the next round to secure its second consecutive trip to the Frozen Four.
That trio of one-goal games aligned with the season’s pattern for the Bulldogs. Nothing had come easily to the rebuilt program that finished third behind Denver, the reigning champ that defeated Minnesota Duluth in last year’s national title game, and St. Cloud State in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference standings.
“I’d like to think it’s helped us,” Sandelin said about the previous nailbiters. “Obviously, it’s great when you win them. But we’ve had a lot. We’re not a super, high-powered offensive team. I think the big change for our team, we’ve played much better defense in the last month and a half, two months.”
Defense mattered for the young Bulldogs when a 17-4 shot advantage in their favor in the first period flipped when a more aggressive Ohio State squad outshot them, 16-11, in the final two periods on Thursday night.
A power-play goal by Tanner Laczynski, Ohio State’s top scorer, in the third changed the vibe in the building and forced the Bulldogs to spend the final 10 minutes holding onto the lead.
Before Thursday’s win, Minnesota Duluth had lost games to Denver and North Dakota on March 16 and 17, respectively, in the Frozen Faceoff, its league tournament’s semifinals, in the same arena that hosted the Frozen Four.
Then, a team without any guarantees waited to see if it would get another chance to show the world that it belonged in the NCAA tournament.
On Thursday night, however, this young group did far more than that.
The Bulldogs earned another chance to show the world that they’re, possibly, the best team in the game on Saturday night.
“[I’m] real excited for our guys, how they’ve grown through the year and to be able to play in the final game of the year is pretty special,” Sandelin said. “So we’re looking forward to it.”