Minnesota Duluth denies Notre Dame a national championship in hockey

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SAINT PAUL, Minn. – A remarkable hockey season that included a pair of Big Ten titles and a 16-game winning streak ended two goals short of a first NCAA title for Notre Dame.

The top-ranked Irish, who made a habit of coming back from deficits all season long, picked the wrong time and the wrong team to extricate themselves from a 2-0 hole Saturday night at the Frozen Four championship game at the Xcel Energy Center.

Minnesota Duluth got first-period goals from Karson Kuhlman at 9:06 and Jared Thomas at 18:39 and made the lead stand up for a 2-1 victory before 18,303 fans, most of them cheering the Bulldogs (25-16-3) on to their second NCAA title under coach Scott Sandelin. Their first one came here in 2011 when the Bulldogs beat Michigan 3-2 in overtime after eliminating Notre Dame in the semifinals.

It was a tough ending for Jeff Jackson’s Irish (29-9-2), who had won 14 of their first 17 one-goal games this season, including the last five coming into their second NCAA championship game under Jackson

“This group was unbelievable,” said Jackson, who had the Irish in their fourth Frozen Four in his 13 seasons behind the bench. “I mean they were relentless. They were resilient. We had great leadership. I feel awful for our seniors. They did a heckuva job all season long. We ran into a better team tonight and we have to respect that.”

Junior center Andrew Oglevie’s power-play goal at 7:40 of the second period – his ninth with the man-advantage and team-leading 15th of the season – was one of the few highlights on the evening for the Irish. It was set up by passes from senior captain Jake Evans and sophomore left wing Cam Morrison.

But it was just one of 20 shots that the Irish could muster against Duluth goalie Hunter Shepard, who turned away the other 19 while outdueling his sophomore counterpart for Notre Dame, All-American Cale Morris, who Friday won the Mike Richter Outstanding Goalie of the Year Award. Morris finished with 33 saves, including 18 in the second period to give his team a chance going into the third.

“The (pro-Duluth) atmosphere did not affect us,” said Oglevie, his eyes red from tears. “I think they did a good job in the neutral zone eliminating our speed.”

Evans, also showing the emotions of a tough end to his Notre Dame career, saluted Duluth.

“They’re doing all the little things right,” he said. “If you’re not chipping the pucks past them and are turning pucks over, bad things are going to happen as a result.”

Sandelin’s forwards forechecked like crazy in the third period, keeping pressure off Shepard and the six defensemen – one sophomore and five freshmen – in front of him. The strategy – Duluth blocked 21 Irish shots before they got to Shepard – worked as it has for more than three seasons now. The Bulldogs are 56-0-3 taking a lead into the third period since Feb. 21, 2015 when they lost at Miami in overtime, 4-3.

“I want to congratulate Jeff and Notre Dame,” Sandelin said. “They had an outstanding season.”

But like the 2007-08 season, Jackson’s third with the Irish, it came up empty in the Frozen Four championship game.

“We’ll get back at it after we have time to reflect,” the 62-year-old Jackson said. “We’ve got a big senior class to replace (Evans, defenseman Jordan Gross and five others) and a big freshman class coming in. There will certainly be a different look in our team, but we’ve got good players and a fairly good group of leadership coming back. But I’m not going to look too far into the future right now. I want to embrace these kids that we have her and what they accomplished.”

In its last five games to get here, Notre Dame had won two games in overtime and three times in the final 31 seconds of regulation, with Evans scoring the game-winner with 5.2 seconds left to eliminate Big Ten rival Michigan, 4-3, after trailing 2-0 early in the second period.

Duluth, which got into the 16-team field over hockey heavyweights Boston College, Minnesota and North Dakota because Notre Dame beat Ohio State 3-2 to win the Big Ten playoff title, held up the banner for its league – the National Collegiate Hockey Conference – by ousting Big Ten runner-up Ohio State 2-1 in Thursday’s semifinals before beating the Irish.

“When they made the tournament, they became the team of destiny that you’re always hoping to be at the end of the year,” Jackson said of Sandelin’s Bulldogs, who will visit Notre Dame next October. “So, hats off to them.”

This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Duluth after it dropped a 3-2 decision to Denver in last year’s Frozen Four championship game at Chicago’s United Center. Indeed, their 16 losses this year with a young team is the most by an NCAA champion. Notre Dame, meanwhile, used its 6-1 loss to Denver in the semifinals last year as motivation for this season.

Kuhlman, Duluth’s senior captain who assisted on Thomas’ game-winner, was named the outstanding player of the Frozen Four and was joined on the all-tournament team by Thomas, Shepard and freshman All-America defenseman Scott Perunovich. Oglevie and Gross represented the Irish.

Early on, the Bulldogs lost 5-foot-8, 175-pound freshman left wing Kobe Roth when he was checked into the boards by 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior defenseman Justin Wade at 6:21. After being attended to by team medical personnel, Roth was helped to the locker room with an apparent upper-body injury.

As the game progressed toward the middle of the first period, the Irish got careless in the neutral zone when Gross moved the puck to Evans, who was on the ice centering fourth-line wingers Joe Wegwerth and Bo Brauer. Kuhlman, the Bulldogs’ captain, poked the puck off Evans’ stick, Jade Miller redirected it back to Kuhlman and he skated into the Irish zone unguarded.

When he reached the top of the faceoff circle to Morris’ left, Kuhlman let go a wrist shot that fooled the Irish goaltender, beating Morris high to his glove side for a 1-0 lead at 9:06.

Late in the period, Thomas knocked Irish defenseman Andrew Peeke off the puck in the corner. Peeke regained the puck momentarily and tried to shovel the puck behind the net. But Kuhlman knocked the puck loose and Thomas intercepted, skating along the goal line to challenge Morris. The Irish goalie left a small opening and Thomas’ shot deflected off Morris’ left hip into the net at 18:39 for a 2-0 lead.

The Irish killed off back-to-back penalties to Mike O’Leary and Gross at the end of the first period and early in the second period. At one point, the Bulldogs had a 9-0 edge in shots, but Shepard stopped Morrison in close and Duluth then received its second penalty in the period when Perunovich went off for interference on a very questionable call by the ECAC hockey crew.

The Irish didn’t complain, of course, and 32 seconds they cut into the lead when Evans made a cross-ice pass to a streaking Morrison, who shoveled the puck in front to Oglevie before going hard into the boards. Oglevie tipped Morrison’s pass past Shepard at 7:40 to cut the Irish deficit to one, 2-1.

With 90 seconds remaining in the period, freshman forward Colin Theisen broke in as a Duluth defender hustled to cut down his shooting angle against Shepard. Theisen couldn’t get off a good shot, something that haunted the Irish all night.

Minnesota Duluth goalie Hunter Shepard (32) stops a shot by Notre Dame left wing Joe Wegwerth (21) with defensive help from Minnesota Duluth players Jade Miller (26) and Louie Roehl (6) in the first period during an NCAA Frozen Four championship college hockey game, Saturday, April 7, 2018, in St. Paul, Minn.. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)