NCAA championship: Sandelin claims place among NCAA's best as Minnesota Duluth wins national title

Jade Miller of the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs celebrates with teammate Parker Mackay after winning the national championship against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

The Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs weren’t even supposed to be here.

Last summer they lost freshman goalie Hunter Miska, sophomores Neal Pionk on defense and Adam Johnson up front, and senior forwards Alex Iafallo and Dominic Toninato, among others.

Iafallo played almost every game with the Kings this season. Pionk split time with the Rangers and Hartford Wolf Pack. Toninato was on the Avs for half the season. Johnson’s been a pretty good AHLer all year. Miska was an AHL regular as well.

Sure, they’d made the national title game in 2017, losing to a Denver side that always seemed like a team of destiny, but that’s a lot of pro-quality talent to lose. Over the weekend, Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin joked that he never thought his team could get back to the Frozen Four, let alone another title game.

Let alone, one assumes, becoming the national champion. And yet here we are, with the Bulldogs having beaten Notre Dame, one of the best teams in the country since the first day of the season, 2-1, to win the team’s second national title, both under Sandelin since 2011.

“It’s a special championship for the program,” Sandelin said. “I mean, I was fortunate to be part of the first one but this one is just as special. They never get old. And I’m extremely happy for these three guys here that get to go out on a really, really good note and it’s pretty remarkable what they’ve done to be up here as national champions. They deserve all the credit, especially our leaders.”

This is, to be clear, rather a young Bulldogs team. All those losses thinned out the team’s experienced depth, forcing them to play 13 different freshmen and sophomores for at least 30 games this season. Just four seniors and three juniors did the same.

Not that you’d recognize the lack of experience from their on-ice efficacy; this was one of the best shot-suppression teams in the country all year, and tonight they held Notre Dame, which averaged more than 31 shots a night, to just 20. And that was despite the fact that UMD led for 50 or so minutes.

While this was a 2-1 game, it always felt like a lot more than that. Final shots in the game were 35-20 for the victors, and most of the ones they allowed were from well outside the middle of the ice. The only goal conceded was on one of Notre Dame’s two power plays.

The difference between these teams was obvious enough more or less from the outset. Notre Dame was getting little in the way of sustained offense around Hunter Shepard, while Minnesota Duluth was able to keep hemming Notre Dame in its own half of the ice.

UMD’s first-period goals — 9:06 in and then again late at 18:39 — both came on turnovers created by seniors. The first, in which senior Karson Kuhlman picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone and got a maybe-maybe-not deflection off a defender’s stick opened the scoring. Nine and a half minutes later, Kuhlman created havoc in the corner, then senior Jared Thomas rampaged in as a second layer, brought the puck to the goal line and scored a bad-angle goal to double the lead and all but salt the game away nice and early.

Otherwise, Notre Dame goaltender Cale Morris was electric, stopping 33 in the hard-fought loss.

Head Coach Scott Sandelin and Avery Peterson of the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs celebrate their victory. (Photo by Carlos Gonzalez/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Much was made of Sandelin’s issue in having to turn over basically his entire D corps. “Five freshmen and a sophomore,” and, “Almost all of them are teenagers,” were the refrains pretty much all weekend, but that six-man unit routinely kept Notre Dame’s forwards well away from the danger areas. Sandelin must have known coming into the season what the group was capable of becoming, and then after a wobbly start, well, here they are.

“We just had obviously lost a big chunk of our back end and had five incoming freshmen, and we recruited them for a reason because they’re talented players but I’m not going to sit here and lie,” Sandelin said. “We had a question mark.”

That, too, is down to what Sandelin brings to the table as one of college hockey’s elite coaches. His team was sub-.500 at the break, with horrible special teams despite a perfectly fine approach at 5-on-5. But Sandelin took the break, rejiggered the team’s approach, particularly on special teams, and they improved dramatically.

Before Christmas, the Bulldogs had 36th-best power play and sixth-worst PK in the country. Afterward? Third-best man advantage and fourth-best PK. Call it the young guys getting some experience, call it shrewd adjustments. Call it a combination of the two. But if you can start converting almost 30 percent of your power plays and shut down 87 percent of your opponents’, your goal difference is going to skyrocket, and special teams are certainly the areas of the game over which the coach has the most direct influence. In the second half, they had 29 power play or shorthanded goals for, and only 15 against.

Of course, one of those came from Andrew Oglevie on Notre Dame’s second straight power play, midway through the second period, to cut the lead in half. That put the Irish on something of a furious comeback trail after that, but still the quality of shots the Bulldogs were conceding was still pretty solid; lots of blocks, lots from the outside. Through 40, the power play goal (and a weird one at that) was just about all they could do in terms of getting the puck to the netfront. And the bad news for the Irish? Duluth was 22-0-1 when leading after the second period this year.

And that’s not just a this-year thing. Behind Sandelin’s incredible systems, the Bulldogs haven’t lost when holding a lead through 40 minutes since mid-March……….. 2015. Since then, they’re now an incredible 56-0-3 after two periods, across three long seasons’ worth of games.

But again, it was 2-1 for the entire third period, against a Notre Dame team that had made late comebacks a calling card in the past five weeks, and this result always felt like a fait accompli, at least to the neutral observer.

“We needed to put more pucks in behind their defense, but we didn’t get that done,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. “We had too many plays where the puck wouldn’t even get below the tops of the circles. You’re not going to generate anything if you’re chasing. Unfortunately we were forced to chase too much because of turnovers.”

Duluth is now the third team since 2013 to make it into the tournament as the last seed and end up winning the final. It’s apparently not as hard as one might think to do what Sandelin did over the past month, but few coaches would be able to do it under these circumstances, with a roster like this, ekeing out every game along the way by a single goal.

Some might call that luck, but if you can do it for long enough, it’s repeatable skill. There are few coaches in college hockey as good at what they do as Sandelin.

And for the record, given Sandelin’s minimum expectation for this club next season should probably be its third straight Frozen Four. Which ain’t bad if you weren’t supposed to be there in the first place.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and is the ONLY HOST of the NCAA hockey podcast “Hockey Goes to College” (the other guy is only his sidekick). His email is here and his Twitter is here.