It was a historic night in St. Paul on Saturday as the University of Duluth Bulldogs captured their first ever national title with a thrilling 3-2 overtime victory over the Michigan Wolverines.
The game featured lead changes, a disallowed goal, a score of penalties and a boisterous crowd, all inside a fantastic venue.
It was an extremely memorable night of hockey.
Duluth held the play early on but couldn't get shots to the net. The best chance in the opening minutes came when Bulldogs defenceman Wade Bergman found himself alone in the highslot with the puck but he elected to pass to an unsuspecting Mike Connolly and the opportunity went wasted.
Just a minute later the Wolverines appeared to score as there was a goal mouth scramble that ended with captain Carl Hagelin (NYR) pushing the puck under Kenny Reiter and into the net. The official waved off the goal and then went to review it but the ruling on the ice stood. It was decided that the whistle had blown before the puck had crossed the line.
"On the ice I felt like they weren't going to allow that goal," said Hagelin, "I kind of heard a whistle right when I touched the puck.
"My pad over-rotated and the puck got stuck between the pad and my skate and I was like, 'where's the whistle?' but he wasn't blowing it," said Reiter. "I didn't think it was going to be a goal and he waived it off on the ice and he was pretty sure about it."
The Bulldogs went on the powerplay and came close a couple of times including a wicked wrist shot by Connolly that riccocheted off the post and into the saftey netting.
Through the first 15 minutes of play, Duluth held a 10-6 lead in shots and had carried most of the offensive chances but netminder Shawn Hunwick was equal to each test. The 5'7 goaltender shutout the Fighting Sioux on Thursday and appeared to be in similar form in the Championship game.
"Shawn Hunwick was terrific," head coach Red Berenson said in his postgame address, "He gave us a chance and it just wasn't meant to be."
Ben Winnett (TOR) scored the first goal on Thursday against the Sioux ( which ended up being the game winner) and he struck first on Saturday as well. Matt Rust won an offensive zone faceoff back to Winnett who fired it past Kenny Reiter to give the Wolverines a 1-0 lead with 3 minutes left and that lasted until the end of the first period. Shots on goal were 12-8 for Duluth.
The Bulldogs came out hungry and scored to tie the game just a minute and a half into period two. Thunder Bay-born Travis Oleksuk got the goal while Calgary's Brady Lamb picked up his first of 3 assists of the night. The Xcel Energy Center erupted in cheers as the pro-Duluth crowd was lifted to its feet.
Both teams failed to capitalize on power play chances but minutes later Michigan nearly scored again. Kenny Reiter got a shoulder on a shot, the rebound bounced up and over him but three diving Bulldog players batted it out of mid-air before it landed in the net.
"That was huge, thank God Jack's got great eye-hand coordination," said Duluth coach Scott Sandeline of forward Jack Connolly.
Duluth came back hard after that and fourth line center Max Tardy banged in his own rebound, a power play marker that was also his first career NCAA goal of his career. He hadn't been a regular on the PP during the regular season but had been practicing for weeks.
"We kept him on the second unit all week and practiced him there so he was kind of on and off during the year," said Sandelin, "You'll probably see him there a lot next year, trust me."
Michigan began playing with fire taking a couple of back-to-back penalities but the Bulldogs shot themselves in the foot by getting called for a couple of their own.
Mike Connolly had another great scoring opprtunity at the side of the net as he lifted a shot to the top corner but Hunwick just got a piece of it and the puck danced along the mesh on top of the goal.
Another unlikely hero would find the back of the net in the dying minutes of the second period. Jeff Rohrkemper, a sophomore from Grosse Point, MI directed a quick backhand shot from the slot through traffic that eluded Reiter. That goal got the Wolverines energized and they followed it up with another offensively dangerous shift.
"I think the top players just about neutralize each other throughout the game and it's an unsuspected player or unsung hero that ends up scoring a goal," said Berenson, "It might be a flukey goal like Rohrkemper's goal was a flukey goal, but it was a huge goal."
Shots after 40 minutes: UMD 27 - MICH 17.
Freshman J.T. Brown was on fire to start the final frame. The Bulldogs forward had two chances early, both created by streaking to the net with the puck using his speed to beat the defenceman, but neither rush ended in a goal.
Play continued for the first ten minutes with neither team really establishing dominance. Brady Lamb was called for a questionable "hitting after the whistle" call on Hagelin that got the UMD fans in an uproar. Seconds later the refs evened up with a holding call against Jon Merill (NJ).
The 4-on-4 was exciting; the first minute was spent in Michigan's end with the Bulldogs swarming. Mike Connolly had the puck on a string and fired wide on his first opportunity then was allowed to walk in all alone from the point but Hunwick made a game-saving snag with his glove on Connolly's bullet wrister destined for the top corner.
Both teams cam incredibly close to scoring goal ahead goals. First it was Duluth and again it was Connolly, by himself in the slot who had the chance. His shot squeeked through Hunwick and was trickling into the net before being cleared at the last second by Wolverines defender Greg Pateryn (TOR).
"I was left alone in front of the net and swept a backhand through and it sat right on the line but, like you said, they were able to clear it." said the native of Calgary.
The play went up the ice and developed into a shorthanded 2-on-1 for Michigan with their two leading scorers charging across the blueline. The Bulldogs d-man played it well and nearly broke it up but the pass got through and goalie Reiter had to make an old school, sliding two-pad stack save to keep the puck out and the score tied.
"Carl made an unbelievable play," said Caporusso, "When he branched out I knew he was going to pass it so I squared up and got ready for it and he did a great job getting it through. When I got it the goalie had already double-pad jammed it so I tried to shoot it as hard as I could."
Reiter recounted later what was a major turning point in the game.
"I like to try and be as technical as I can be but everything kind of went out the window there," Reiter laughed, "Hagelin had it and he had good patience. He held up there and I kind of saw the other guy near my back so I figured I'd have to play a little deeper and respect him. He threw it across and that was the first thing I thought of was to just get something there and my legs were the first thing there. I didn't feel it come off my body but then I just heard cheers instead of a buzzer, it was one of the highlights of the game for me."
With the crowd in an absolute frenzy, the last five minutes became a bit of a chess match. Neither side wanted to make a mistake and yet they both did creating scoring chances that weren't finished off.
Apparently the players felt the same way as the fans; three periods wasn't enough for a game this exciting so they headed for sudden death overtime.
Shots after 60 minutes: Duluth 36 - Michigan 23
The end, as it always does in overtime, came suddenly. Just after another shift where Duluth's top line had tons of pressure in Michigan's end, it was the second line that came through for the history making moment. Oleksuk got to a loose puck behind the net and sent it towards the slot where streaking Kyle Schmidt pounced on it and fired it past Hunwick:
The pro-Duluth crowd erupted, the players piled off the bench at the celebration ended in the opposite end of the rink while the defeated Wolverines made their way back to their bench helpless to watch the festivities.
Inside the winning dressing room players were posing with the NCAA Championship Trophy, others were hugging and congratulating one another. One player, Jack Connolly, was overwhelemed with emotion and sat red-eyed as he looked around the room at his victorious teammates. As a junior it's possible for him to return again next year but I got the sense that it wouldn't be the same for him.
"It'll be a lot tougher without that guy," he said motioning to senior linemate Justin Fontaine, "He's such an awesome player, it's been unreal playing with him for the last three years."
Fontaine couldn't possibly think of a better way to finish his NCAA hockey career than by going out on top.
"I can't ask for anything else," he said, "It's such a great feeling to be leaving this program after four years as National Champion, first time in history, I can't ask for much more... I can't wait to see the big rings we get!"
The deadly Duluth trio of Connolly, Connolly and Fontaine were all over the ice and had several opportunities to score but didn't actually record a single point between them. Fortunately, the secondary scoring came through.
"That's what a team is, we put in a few good nights and helped boost our team but look at the guys step up tonight," said Fontaine, "[Our line] wasn't able to get things done tonight so they stepped up and they won the game for us."
"Our secondary lines were unbelievable," Connolly said, "They picked our top line up, they picked our power play up, penalty kill was phenomenal and overtime is our game for sure. That's what this team is all about; 25 guys... it's unbelievable."
Undrafted freshman J.T. Brown was named the outstanding player of the game for his 7 shots on net, second assist on the first Duluth goal and for his tenacious skating and driving to the net. Brown was outstanding in the final game.
"Anyone who watched the game tonight would agree that he was the best player on the ice," said Connolly, "The way he drew penalties, the way he competed... he's going to be a heck of a hockey player because he's only a freshman. I think as long as he's here the Bulldogs have a bright future."
Coach Sandelin was asked what winning the title meant for him and for the Duluth program.
"When I came here 11 years ago I left a team that won a national championship, actually two in three years," he began, "But I was willing to accept that challenge, because I believe you could win here. And sometimes you gotta go through some rough patches, but we've had a great staff that's worked hard. We've recruited some great kids."
"We've got a great group of guys, we've got the right pieces of the puzzle," he continued, "But everything's got to come together and this group was resilient all year and worked hard and believed in each other. That's why I'm so happy for them. I'm happy for the program. Yeah, I'm happy for me. I've had a design on the ring planned since I got here."
For Canadian Mike Connolly, this was partly redemption for two previous failed national title bids North of the border.
"It feels pretty good... oh my God!" smiled Connolly, "I came here with two [RBC Cup] losses in Camrose and my goal coming here was to win a National championship and what a great effort it was tonight."
A great effort and history was made.
- Before the Frozen Four, Ben Winnett had not scored since December. He scored in both games in St. Paul.
- All of the members of the Duluth Bulldogs dyed their hair blond, an idea the Canadians on the team came up with after the team tried Mohawks the last couple of years without success. One player was excused from the team building dye job, winning goal scorer Kyle Schmidt who is getting married in the coming weeks.
- Mike Connolly registered 9 shots on goal in the final game.
- When asked if coach Sandelin had channeled Herb Brooks in the dressing before overtime, Max Tardy replied: "I think he said 'It's out time!' about five or six times."
- The final attendance announced for the final was 19,222 which is the second biggest for a final game played in a hockey arena. (Last year's game at Ford Field in Michigan holds the overall record).
- The 2012 Frozen Four will be held in Tampa Bay, FLA with two stops in Pensylvannia to follow; Pittsburgh in 2013 and Philadelphia in 2014.