ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Coming into the national championship game, one could argue that history would not be on Minnesota Duluth's side. Why would it be? Michigan, with all its tradition, is the program that dates back to 1920 and owns nine national championships -- more than any other school in the country. Meanwhile, a win for UMD would be its first. But so what if history wasn't on its side? It was made instead, as the Bulldogs earned their first national championship with a thrilling 3-2 win in overtime Saturday night.
"To do something that the school's never done... it [means] everything," head coach Scott Sandelin said.
Really, it was just destined to go down in sudden death. The last time each of these teams reached a title game, it went past regulation. Michigan's last two national championships, in 1996 and '98, were decided in an extra frame. The last time Minnesota Duluth played for a national championship, in 1984, the Bulldogs went to four overtime periods before falling to Bowling Green.
In 2011, they'd need just 3:22.
Catching Michigan unable to get a full line change, Duluth center Travis Oleksuk took the puck and swooped back around Wolverine goalie Shawn Hunwick's net. Spying a streaking winger coming in, he centered a perfect pass across the crease, and winger Kyle Schmidt buried it into a virtually open net. In an instant, Schmidt, who earned the Derek Hines Unsung Hero Award on Friday, heard the praises of the sellout crowd at the Xcel Energy Center.
And in an instant, Michigan's season was over; its run, which included unseating favorite North Dakota Thursday night, had come to an end. "It's the opportunity of a lifetime gone in the blink of an eye," sophomore forward Jeff Rohrkemper said.
"[It was a] tough loss," Michigan coach Red Berenson said. "I didn't think our team really got to play their best hockey this weekend, for one reason or another."
Perhaps it was all the time the Wolverines spent on the penalty kill, taking nine minors. Reporting to the box was exactly what Michigan wanted to avoid, especially after seeing what the Bulldogs did to Notre Dame two nights earlier. Minnesota Duluth's power play, which had gone 3-for-6 against the Irish, has all the makings of a game-changer with excellent execution and puck movement. But in the second period, the Wolverines fell into some disciplinary trouble, taking five penalties, including back-to-back minors in midway through the period. In the end, a superb penalty-killing unit was able to handle them on all but one.
After Michigan's Mac Bennett took a hooking penalty in front of the Wolverines' net, Duluth freshman forward Max Tardy found the back of the net, whipping in a short-side rebound given up by Hunwick, who had been perfect against North Dakota. It gave UMD its first lead of the night and second score in eight minutes.
"They have a great power play," Berenson said. "It was all we could do to keep them off the board. ... We were on our heels a lot because of penalties."
But Berenson also lamented some of the calls. "Were they good penalties? I can't tell you what I really think," he said. "You can't talk about refereeing and penalties, but when one team gets nine and the other four, it doesn't add up ...
"You can't kill nine penalties," he said. "Every time a player falls down, it shouldn't be a penalty, not in NCAA championship hockey."
Still, by drawing penalties and keeping Michigan from any sustained pressure in its zone, UMD kept the Wolverines back, outshooting them 38-24 on the night. In last few shifts of the second period, though, Michigan seemed to find its legs, and sophomore center Rohrkemper scored the equalizer with just 2:14 remaining in the period. In the slot and wrestling for position with Duluth defenseman Mike Montgomery, Rohrkemper won the battle in front and backhanded a shot that had been blocked past Bulldog goalie Kenny Reiter.
After an even third period, the game moved into overtime, and the Bulldogs, who played in 14 overtime games this season (6-2-6), were confident. During the break, Sandelin gave his team reason to believe it would happen for them. He gave them his best attempt at a Brooksian inspirational soliloquy.
"It's our time," he told them. "You've been in this situation all year. You've been in the most games, won the most games. It's your time."
"I think he said, 'It's our time,' about five of six time," Tardy said, laughing.
"[Now], whether they bought into it," Sandelin said after the game, "I don't know. I was running out of things to say."
It wouldn't be very long before the coach was rendered speechless.