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UMD scores two early goals, hangs on to advance to Frozen Four final again

Jared Thomas (22) of Minnesota Duluth scores a goal against goaltender Sean Romeo (30) of Ohio State at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul Thursday during the Frozen Four national semifinal game. Clint Austin / Forum News Service1 / 2
Minnesota Duluth players celebrate after defeating Ohio State 2-1at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul Thursday during the Frozen Four national semifinal game. Minnesota Duluth advances to the national championship game Saturday. Clint Austin / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL — No one frowns on gambling quite like the NCAA.

So when Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik said Wednesday during a pre-Frozen Four news conference, "I'll take my chances" against a Minnesota Duluth squad his Buckeyes could have eliminated weeks ago, Rohlik should have known better.

We all should have known better.

The Bulldogs continue to prove their doubters wrong and make those who gamble against the program look ridiculous, this time with a 2-1 victory over Ohio State on Thursday night in an NCAA Frozen Four semifinal at Xcel Energy Center.

UMD will now play for an NCAA title for the second consecutive season at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in St. Paul against another Big Ten school, Notre Dame.

"It gets a little more fun every game, I think," said Bulldogs goaltender Hunter Shepard, who again proved doubters wrong by making 19 saves. "It's just been a whirlwind of a year. We're happy to be here and want to finish the job on Saturday."

Playing back home in the State of Hockey, the Bulldogs jumped to a 2-0 lead in the opening three-plus minutes via goals by freshman defenseman Louie Roehl of Eden Prairie, Minn., and senior wing Jared Thomas of Hermantown.

Roehl's goal 1:53 into the game was the culmination of an early bombardment of the Buckeyes crease, leading to Roehl having all the time in the world at the back door to pick and choose how, when and where he wanted to zip a shot past junior goaltender Sean Romeo.

"I caught it, looked up for a second and saw the open net. I was more than happy to shoot the puck," Roehl said. "I had Parker Mackay just screaming at me, 'Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!' right when the puck was coming to me.

"I'm not the biggest goal-scorer, (You're a goal-scorer!, yelled a teammate from across the locker room) but it was fun to get, a good one to get for the team."

A minute and a half after Roehl's goal, senior captain and wing Karson Kuhlman of Esko sprung his fellow Northlander, Thomas, for a breakaway by splitting a pair of Buckeyes with a pass up the middle through the neutral zone.

Thomas — who started the attack by forcing a bad Buckeyes pass to Kuhlman — finished with a backhander through the five-hole of Romeo to send the pro-UMD crowd into a frenzy.

That goal proved to be the decisive one in what was the Bulldogs' 10th consecutive NCAA tournament game to be decided by a single goal in the last four years.

Thomas and Kuhlman have played in all 10 of those games dating to their freshman year, winning seven of them.

"When you look at the grand scheme of things, it's pretty remarkable, pretty crazy," Thomas said of returning to the national championship game. "It's been a heck of a journey this year. We've had our ups and downs for sure, and it hasn't really hit me yet. It's pretty crazy that we're playing in the national championship game again. We're going to do everything in our power and our will to finish on top."

The Buckeyes, who returned 16 of the 19 skaters who lost 3-2 in overtime to the Bulldogs a year ago in a West Regional semifinal in Fargo, N.D., didn't get on the board until the 9:27 mark when a shot by sophomore wing Tanner Laczynski deflected off the glove of Thomas and past the glove-side elbow of a screened Shepard. The chance was created via the chaos a broken stick created on a power play.

"They got the power play, but our guys held strong," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "That kind of seems to be the MO with our team right now. Our program in this tournament, we've had a lot of one-goal games.

"But real excited for our guys, how they've grown through the year and to be able to play in the final game of the year is pretty special. So, we're looking forward to it."

UMD was an unlikely opponent for Ohio State on Thursday for a variety of reasons.

The first 10-or-so reasons go back to what the UMD program has gone through in the 363 days since the team lost 3-2 to Denver in the 2017 NCAA championship at United Center in Chicago. UMD graduated seven seniors, including a captain and 50-point All-American scorer from that team.

Then the Bulldogs' starting goaltender, top returning defenseman and new top-line center/assistant captain all left school early to sign NHL contracts.

Those 10 departures were replaced with 10 freshmen — five of which were defensemen who all played Thursday — plus a transfer to step in as the top-line center. Playing each and every one of those newcomers on numerous occasions during an injury-riddled first half, the Bulldogs were at the bottom of the NCHC standings and under .500 at Christmas.

UMD went on a run in the second half, however, going 13-5-1 to climb to ninth in the Pairwise, only to be knocked down to 12th after two losses in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Xcel just three weeks ago.

The Bulldogs snuck into the NCAA tournament as the last at-large seed by one ten-thousandth of a point over Minnesota in the computer rankings. That last fraction of a point came via the misfortune of Ohio State, which lost the Big Ten championship in overtime to Notre Dame.

A snarky question about that game and the Buckeye's misfortune that night prompted the, "We'll take our chances" response.

But if Rohlik's team did win the Big Ten title that night, there's no Bulldogs team here in St. Paul to score two quick goals and then stymie the Buckeyes from there.

And maybe it's the Buckeyes playing Saturday for an NCAA title instead of UMD.

"We dug ourselves a hole," Rohlik said. "We might have only done that one other time, in the Big Ten championship game against Notre Dame. You have to tip your cap to Duluth. Our guys felt like they were on their heels right away. I couldn't have predicted that."

Few could have predicted all of this, even the Bulldogs themselves.

"It's been a goal of ours since the start of the year, but to say that we all thought we'd be here is hard to put that into words, especially at the start of the year and after the start we had," UMD senior wing Blake Young said. "When we got hot that second half, it started to get a little bit more clear in our minds and I think the goal became more of a passion for us.

"Like I said a thousand times already, it's an unbelievable feeling to see that hard work pay off throughout the year."

Minn. Duluth 2-0-0—2 Ohio State 0-0-1—1

First period — 1. UMD, Louie Roehl 3 (Matt Anderson, Parker Mackay), 1:53; 2. UMD, Jared Thomas 10 (Karson Kuhlman), 3:04. Penalties — Peter Krieger, UMD (hooking), 9:10; Ronnie Hein, OSU (tripping), 9:22; Tommy Parran, OSU (interference), 14:02.

Second period — No scoring. Penalties — Riley Tufte, UMD (roughing), 3:59; Dakota Joshua, OSU (roughing), 3:59; Mikey Anderson, UMD (interference), 7:30.

Third period — 3. OSU, Tanner Laczynski 17 (Dakota Joshua, Wyatt Ege), 9:27 (pp). Penalties — Tufte, UMD (elbowing), 5:38; Nick Wolff, UMD (tripping), 8:30.

Shots on goal — UMD 17-6-5—28; OSU 4-8-8—20. Goalies — Hunter Shepard, UMD (20 shots-19 saves); Sean Romeo, OSU (28-26). Power plays — UMD 0-of-2; OSU 1-of-4. Referees — Jamie Koharski, Kevin Shea. Linesmen — Tommy George, Steven Murray. Att. — n/a.

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

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