The NCAA Hockey season has reached its end. Over the course of seven months, 60 teams were boiled down to just two, and Saturday night, two became one. The University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (UMD) topped the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, taking home the program’s second national championship in its history.
It seemed as though the Bulldogs felt the full force of the home crowd behind them—the final four was, after all, played at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. In fact, the team’s first national title was won on the very same sheet of ice back in 2011.
It was UMD’s second appearance in the last game of the college hockey season two years running. Last year, heartbreak struck as the Bulldogs fell to the University of Denver Pioneers by a score of 3-2. To get to the final stage, it was Notre Dame whom Denver needed to power through, and they did so by a score of 6-1.
Minnesota-Duluth’s Early Domination
But this time, it was all Minnesota-Duluth. The Bulldogs controlled the pace of the game from the get-go, guarding their blue line with vigor and getting pucks deep into the Fighting Irish’s end. In fact, at times it seemed as if Notre Dame was scared to skate with the puck—but who could blame them? Whenever a defenseman would retrieve the puck from below the goal line, there was a UMD forward closing in on them. The way the Bulldogs forechecked was something to marvel at, and if by chance Notre Dame got the puck out of their zone, they were halted by the time they were in goal-scoring range.
Seven minutes into the first frame, in an attempt to turn the tide, Notre Dame senior Justin Wade lined up a bone-crushing hit—literally. Bulldogs freshman Kobe Roth went down, waving for the trainer to come to his aid. He required help as he limped down the tunnel, and it was later reported that Roth had fractured his tibia during the collision.
Both teams responded by ramping up the physical play, but it was the Fighting Irish who claimed victory in this battle. What they lacked in puck possession they made up for with their size and muscle, finishing checks whenever possible.
Before the halfway point in the period, UMD captain Karson Kuhlman, an undrafted senior likely competing in the biggest hockey game he’ll ever play in, had scored his greatest goal. The Esko, Minnesota native electrified the over 18,000 in attendance in St. Paul, rifling one past the ear of Notre Dame sophomore goaltender Cale Morris into the top-right corner. Morris seemed uncharacteristically stunned by the shot, barely making a move before the puck had bounced back out of the net, giving the Bulldogs an early 1-0 lead.
— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) April 7, 2018
Midway through the first frame, Minnesota-Duluth was leading in shots-on-goal by a margin of 8-4. While Bulldogs goaltender Hunter Shepard did a good job backstopping his team, it was the UMD defense that stole the show in the early stages. They continuously pounced on the Fighting Irish attackers before they could reach the faceoff circles. Shockingly, even Notre Dame’s most reliable forwards – Jake Evans, Andrew Oglevie, and Cal Burke—were unable to build any momentum. It seems that every time the Fighting Irish saw a sliver of light, the Bulldogs regained possession and transitioned into attack mode.
With less than two minutes remaining in the period, UMD senior Jared Thomas displayed the essence of blue-collar hockey. He began with a strong forecheck, forcing Notre Dame sophomore defenseman Andrew Peeke to commit a turnover in the corner. Thomas then took control of biscuit and threw a shot on goal from a virtually impossible angle. He was, however, rewarded for his efforts with a goal: the puck bounced off of Morris who was hugging the post and into the net. The Bulldogs had a 2-0 lead going into the locker room.
Notre Dame Fights Back
Having taken a penalty at the end of the first frame, Notre Dame came into the second period on the penalty kill. Right as they were about to escape without any damage, the Fighting Irish took another penalty. Morris, the Mike Richter Award winner as the best goaltender in the nation, kept his team in the game. After letting in Thomas’ goal— one he should have kept out—the Larkspur, Colorado native was not about to let in another one.
Then Minnesota-Duluth mirrored their opponent. After Notre Dame’s second kill, the Bulldogs took a penalty of their own. After a successful kill, they took another penalty, and this time the Fighting Irish capitalized. A Montreal Canadiens prospect and Notre Dame senior, Evans saw an opportunity to stretch UMD’s defense thin. He sent the puck across the zone to sophomore Cam Morrison, who picked up on Oglevie streaking towards the slot. He fired a cross-crease pass to the Fighting Irish junior who put it on net. Shepard got a pad on it, but the puck continued past the goal line to make it a one-goal game.
The Fighting Irish had some fight in them after all. While Minnesota-Duluth maintained an 11-3 shot advantage halfway through the period, Notre Dame seemed to shift the momentum late in the frame. UMD was then in survival mode, relying on their defense to keep shots to the outside. With the relentless pressure, Shepard was eventually forced to make some big saves. For the first time in the game, the Bulldogs were on their heels and virtually had to escape the period with their lead intact.
UMD took back the game in the third period, refusing to let Notre Dame out of their own zone early on in the frame. The ferocious forecheck was back, and with it came a vivid confidence for the Bulldogs.
But the Fighting Irish have been a comeback team all tournament long. In the late stages of the game, Notre Dame poured on the pressure once more, clearly in desperation mode. Focusing their efforts on getting the game-tying goal, they gave up a breakaway with four minutes remaining. The goaltender of the year came up big, keeping the Fighting Irish’s hopes alive.
However, the Bulldogs held strong, winning their second national championship in seven years.
Kobe Roth’s Date with the Trophy
As if the game wasn’t enough, the beauty of hockey shined bright during Minnesota-Duluth’s championship celebration. Roth, who was injured in the first period, was brought out onto the ice to join the festivities. While that brought a warmth to onlooker’s hearts, it got even better.
When the trophy was handed out, Roth found himself in a folding chair. But he got his chance to celebrate, getting pushed around the Bulldogs end of the ice with the trophy by sophomore Jade Miller.
— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) April 8, 2018
It was the icing on the cake of an incredible season for Minnesota-Duluth, which finished the campaign with a 25-16-3 record. Their pure domination of Notre Dame early on and determination to hold a one-goal lead for over 30 minutes of play earned them a national championship. The boys in maroon and gold will surely remember Saturday, April 8, 2018, for the rest of their lives.
I cover the Boston Bruins and NCAA Hockey here at The Hockey Writers. Born and raised 10 miles north of Boston, I developed a love for the game of ice hockey at a very young age. There’s really nothing better than this sport, though steak is a close second.