Buffalo, NY — Since its creation in 2013, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference has dominated the college hockey landscape. At least one team has represented the conference in every Frozen Four since 2014, four times there have been two representatives, and the last three seasons saw an NCHC team claim the ultimate prize. Leading the charge has been the nation’s best collegiate program: the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. Scott Sandelin lifted his team to two of the last three NCHC Tournament Titles and an unprecedented third consecutive National Title game appearance in a parity-filled modern era. On Saturday night, Duluth validated their program as a dynasty and their conference as the nation’s best by stymying the nation’s best story: the Massachusetts Minutemen.
The opening frame belonged solidly to Duluth. The Bulldogs peppered Filip Lindberg with five shots in the first 2:11 of the game. Lindberg performed well, but could not stop everything. Marc Del Gaizo took an interference minor and Duluth capitalized on the power play. Mikey Anderson fed Parker Mackay in front and the Bulldog captain feathered a backhander over Lindberg to stake UMD to a lead 3:51 into the game. Duluth had a goal before UMass had a shot on net. The Minutemen only mounted five shots in the frame and could not beat Hunter Shepard.
The second period followed a painfully similar script for UMass. The teams traded quality hits, but Duluth hit their spots perfectly. The Bulldogs played perfect positional hockey, getting where they wanted, hitting their passes, and completing their plays. With just 4:12 left in the second, Mikey Anderson capped a perfect Parker Mackay shot with a beautiful wrister from the slot to balloon the lead to 2-0 ahead of the intermission.
Duluth, as they did to Notre Dame last season, put on a neutral zone clinic and limited UMass, the nation’s third-best offense, to just six shots in the third period. When the Minutemen got a shot, Junior goalie Hunter Shepard stood tall. The Cohasset, MN, native stopped all 18 shots en route to his seventh shutout of the season and 15th of his career.
UMD landed the kill shot when Jackson Cates wristed one home from the left faceoff circle with just 2:42 remaining in regulation. The score concluded at 3-0 and the Duluth Bulldogs stormed the ice in celebration for the second consecutive year.
The Frozen Four’s All-Tournament Team included forwards Parker Mackay, Justin Richards, and Billy Exell, defensemen Mikey Richards and Marc Del Gaizo, and goaltender Hunter Shepard. Duluth’s Parker Mackay was voted the Frozen Four’s Most Outstanding Player with a goal and two assists over two games.
UMass was devastated after the game. They rode a uniquely talented collection of players eager to lift a doormat program to the nation’s highest peak. They ended the season with a 31-10-0 record, easily the best in program history. They reached the Hockey East Semi-Finals for the first time since 2007, the second NCAA Tournament in program history, and the first Frozen Four and National Championship game UMass has ever played for. They inspired a beautiful fan reaction from a school desperate for a winner and etched their names into college hockey memory.
Filip Lindberg, who did not lay claim to the starting goalie job until the UNH playoff series, stopped 28 of 31 shots.
Head Coach Greg Carvel was disappointed with the loss but proud of his team for the season they had.
“For whatever reason, our compete level wasn’t at what it normally is. Really didn’t get stretches of momentum. I thought actually our fourth line was our best line. It created the most offense for us. I think we looked like a young team. I think our team will take a step forward having played that team. Very proud of my team, our team.”
Senior Kurt Keats was the only player on UMass’s National Championship Game roster who played under the old administration and stayed to aid the UMass program in the transformation from cellar dweller to a first placed team under Greg Carvel’s leadership.
“When we came in, the need for a new culture was glaring,” Keats said. “What we inherited, it was in a rough shape. We needed good kids and Kurt’s a good kid. That’s why he made it through. He’s a limited hockey player. He’ll say it, I’ll say it. But he plays with his heart. In the National Championship Game, he was one of our best players. He’s thanked me for keeping me around and I’ve thanked him for what he’s brought to the team. I’m proud that he got to see the transition and feel that he was a big part of it.”
Keats, three-year teammate and graduating friend Brett Boeing, and St. Lawrence graduate transfer Jacob Pritchard depart from UMass with a sour taste from the final game, but with heads high after a magical season that restored pride to the Flagship school of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Hobey Baker Award winner Cale Makar is also a likely departure from UMass. If so, the future Colorado Avalanche defender concludes his career with 21 goals and 49 assists for 70 points in 74 games from the Massachusetts blue line. Makar wore his sweater while answering questions, explaining “I want to wear this for as long as I can. These were two years I’ll never forget as long as I live.”
Minnesota-Duluth reached a remarkable height with the win. The Bulldogs are the first collegiate hockey team to play in three straight National Title games since the 2006-2008 Boston College Eagles and the first to repeat as National Champions since the 2004-2005 Denver Pioneers. UMD has won three National Championships this decade; the most by any school in the 2010s, surpassing Boston College’s two in 2010 and 2012.
“We had to play a very good game to beat a very good team,”Coach Scott Sandelin said. “Couldn’t be more proud of this group. They went through some different challenges this year. They really grew together. And I’m just really excited for them to be National Champions.”
Sandelin has been the bench boss for all three of Duluth’s National Crowns. That ties him with legends his mentor at North Dakota, Gino Gasparini, Herb Brooks, Ned Harkness, Bob Johnson, John MacInnis, and Jack Parker. Only Jerry York (5), Murray Armstrong (5), and Vic Heyliger (6) have more titles. The 19-year leader of the Bulldogs has sowed up his spot as one of college hockey’s greatest coaches.
Hunter Shepard is undefeated in the NCAA Tournament in six decisions.
“You can’t write this any better,” said Parker Mackay. “So fortunate to make regionals all four years, let alone three Frozen Fours and winning two National Championships. So happy to do it with some incredible friends in there.”
Seniors Peter Krieger, Alternate Captain Billy Exell, and Captain Parker Mackay conclude their careers with two NCHC Tournament Titles, four NCAA Tournament trips, three Frozen Fours, three National Championship Game trips, and a pair of National Titles. Underclassmen Scott Perunovich, Mikey Anderson, and Dylan Samberg will all command considerable attention from their drafted NHL teams and are candidates for early departure. For now, though, they can glory in belonging to college hockey’s best program.