Let’s Play Hockey photo by Mike Thill
On the afternoon of St. Patrick’s Day, UMD’s Karson Kuhlman hit the Xcel Energy Center ice late in the third period against North Dakota, likely for the final time in his college career. The Bulldog captain, as always, went all out. Despite an insurmountable deficit on the scoreboard, he hustled for all 200 feet in one last attempt to give his team a spark.
A contingent UMD fans seated a few rows below my group stood and applauded Kuhlman’s effort, showing appreciation of a collegiate career that looked to be ending with a loss in the third-place game of the NCHA Frozen Faceoff. The Bulldogs’ season was headed to a disappointing finish, just shy of the NCAA Tournament. Only an improbable series of results from other playoff games later that evening could save them.
But the seemingly impossible happened. Capped with a nerve-wracking overtime victory by Notre Dame over Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament championship game, the Bulldogs qualified as the final seed. Seizing that opportunity, they edged both Minnesota State and Air Force in the NCAA West Regional to qualify for the Frozen Four in St. Paul.
Back at the Xcel Energy Center facing Ohio State on college hockey’s biggest stage, UMD looked unflappable in a 2-1 national semifinal win. Two goals in the opening minutes proved to be the difference, as a stifling defense surrendered very few Buckeye scoring chances.
So here again was Kuhlman, back on the same ice where his college playing days appeared to end a few weeks earlier, playing for the national championship against Notre Dame. Fittingly, he scored the title game’s opening goal on a hustle play that ended with a sizzling wrist shot that ended in the top corner of the Irish net. When fellow senior Jared Thomas put the Bulldogs up 2-0 later in the first period, it was time for the UMD defense to again take command.
Time and again, the Irish were stifled before they could get the puck to the Bulldog net. While they did manage a second period tally, they could not draw even as UMD captured its second NCAA Championship in eight seasons, with both coming at the Xcel Energy Center. The 2-1 final matched the Bulldogs’ previous two 2018 tournament victories.
It was extraordinary to watch UMD’s team defense as the championship game unfolded. Notre Dame was a team loaded with size, speed and offensive skill, yet they could not gain any traction against a Bulldog squad that was almost always in the right place. It seemed whenever the Irish generated any speed in the neutral zone, either passes were tipped by defenders or there were simply no lanes to move the puck. On the occasions where Notre Dame was able to get chances near the net, Bulldog goalie Hunter Shepard had a clear look at shots and kept rebounds limited.
The UMD victory was a complete team effort. Everyone contributed to the consistent pressure needed to quell a powerful Notre Dame offense that continued to battle right to the end.
Much credit must be given to head coach Scott Sandelin and the Bulldog coaching staff. After losing numerous key contributors from last season’s national runner-up team, they rebuilt with a combination of great recruiting and a style that was an ideal fit for their personnel. They stuck with their plan despite some early-season struggles and injuries, and their meshing of a talented freshmen group with gritty upperclassmen was masterful.
With two national titles and several NCAA Tournament appearances in the past decade, the Bulldogs are now established as one of the truly elite programs in college hockey.