“Guys were yelling and hugging each other,” Bulldogs captain Karson Kuhlman said. “It was good feeling knowing we got a second life going into the N.C.A.A. tournament.”
That Minnesota Duluth then advanced to its second consecutive Frozen Four, beating Minnesota State, 3-2. in overtime and Air Force, 2-1, for the West Regional title, is nearly as surprising as three Big Ten teams filling out the rest of the field.
Minnesota Duluth (23-16-3), relying on five freshman defensemen and the first-year starter Hunter Shepard in goal, faces Ohio State (26-9-5) in one of Thursday’s semifinals, with Michigan (22-14-3) and Notre Dame (27-9-2) squaring off in the other. The winners play for the title Saturday night.
“It doesn’t matter how you get in,” said Sandelin, who coached the Bulldogs to the 2011 national title in the Xcel Energy Center. “The body of work over the year kind of puts you in that position. We had some good things happen, so we were pretty fortunate.”
In one sense, the Bulldogs weren’t. The N.C.H.C. is the only one of the six conferences that still holds a third-place game, and a 4-1 loss to North Dakota in that contest put the Bulldogs in a precarious position.
The website CollegeHockeyNews.com ran a PairWise comparison matrix that allowed users to plug in winners and losers and compute what an updated rankings might look like. Minnesota Duluth players jumped on that as soon as they came off the ice after their loss to North Dakota. An emotional Kuhlman sat at a postgame news conference fearing he had played his last game as a Bulldog.
Shortly after the team bus left for the ride home up Interstate 95, Boston University, which began the day outside the top 16, upset the Hockey East regular-season champion, Providence, to win that tournament. To get into the N.C.A.A. tournament, the Bulldogs now needed favored Clarkson to beat Princeton in the E.C.A.C., or Notre Dame to down Ohio State in the Big Ten.
In Bulldogs bus protocol, the seniors sit in the back and the freshmen toward the front, behind the coaches. Kuhlman said several players broke out iPads to watch a live stream of Clarkson-Princeton, while others scrolled Twitter for updates. Then Princeton won, 2-1, in overtime, becoming the fourth team outside the top 16 to claim an automatic berth.
That left Minnesota Duluth’s fate to be decided by Notre Dame, and the reason why was intricate. The Irish and the Buckeyes were both in the top 16, but the result carried PairWise implications for the Bulldogs and the Golden Gophers, then 12th in the PairWise. Head-to-head results are part of the PairWise formula; the Irish beat the Gophers three times in four games, but Minnesota went 2-1-1 against the Buckeyes. Minnesota Duluth faced neither Notre Dame nor Ohio State. If Notre Dame won, Minnesota would slip behind Duluth. An Ohio State victory would give the Gophers the last spot.
Near the front of the bus, the freshman defensemen Mikey Anderson and Matt Anderson, who are not related, pulled up the Notre Dame game on Mikey’s iPad. That game was headed to overtime when the bus arrived at Amsoil Arena.
“I didn’t know the guys were tracking all of that, but I figured they might be,” Sandelin said.
With the Bulldogs then back in their locker room, Cam Morrison’s game-winner for the Irish at 9:23 of overtime was greeted with a mix of joy and relief. Sandelin said he owed Notre Dame Coach Jeff Jackson a lot.
“A couple of beers in Florida will probably work,” he added, referring to a coaches convention this month.
Minnesota Duluth was not expected to be this good. It lost seven seniors from last year’s team, which fell to Denver in the national championship game, and three underclassmen departed early for the N.H.L. Sandelin began the season with 10 freshman, his most since 2005-6, and no clear No. 1 goalie to replace Hunter Miska, who signed with the Arizona Coyotes.
Shepard, a sophomore, claimed the goaltending job in November and posted eight shutouts, a school record and second nationally. The Bulldogs gained confidence and credibility by winning the Ledyard Bank Classic at Dartmouth in late December while five players were away in the world junior championships; they beat Dartmouth in the championship game with only four defensemen.
“We heard a lot of talk that we weren’t going to be ready, that we were young,” said the freshman defenseman Scott Perunovich, the team’s leading scorer and the N.C.H.C. rookie of the year. “That just wanted to make us keep getting better and better, and I think we came together a lot this year.”
Especially on a particular bus ride.