Hoonhout: The luck of the Irish met its match against the Bulldogs
Tobias Hoonhout | Monday, April 9, 2018
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Sometimes, destiny just doesn’t go your way.
Saturday’s loss in the national championship game definitely hurts for Notre Dame nation, especially because there were a host of signs that pointed to the Irish being destined to bring home their first-ever title.
There was last year’s loss in the Frozen Four to eventual-champion Denver — who had lost in the national semifinal a year before, and this year’s subsequent copying of that run.
There was the emergence of Richter Award winner Cale Morris, who seized an opportunity amidst the loss of Cal Petersen and Anders Bjork and, as a sophomore, took a Notre Dame team struggling to find its identity on the longest win streak in program history.
There was the utter dominance of the Big Ten and the capturing of the both the regular season and tournament conference championship, all in just the team’s first season in the conference.
And there was the incredible postseason run in which the Irish (28-10-2, 17-6-1 Big Ten) won five-straight single-goal games in the final minute or overtime, including Thursday’s comeback victory over Michigan to push this team to the title game.
But at the end of the day, the Irish met their match. And that may very well be because Minnesota Duluth had all the same feel-good criteria and then some.
The Bulldogs (25-16-3, 13-11-0 NCHC) went to last year’s Frozen Four as well. They were the ones who fell in heartbreaking fashion to the Pioneers in the national championship.
Duluth also lost its top goal scorer and goaltender, plus a whole lot more. A whopping 10 players departed — seven seniors graduated and three underclassmen went pro — between the end of last season and the start of this one.
And like the Irish, the Bulldogs relied on senior leadership at the front end and stellar underclassman goalie play at the back to make a remarkable run. Sophomore Hunter Shepard helped solidify the foundation with his emergence in net as the season went on, and senior captain Karson Kuhlman helped lead the Bulldogs back to the promised land, winning Most Outstanding Player of the tournament in the process.
But what’s really remarkable is how Duluth even got into the tournament. On the outside looking in after falling in the NCHC tournament, the Bulldogs squeaked into the regional thanks to the efforts of — of all teams — the Irish.
Because Notre Dame was able to win the Big Ten tournament against Ohio State, an at-large bid opened up for the Bulldogs, and they pounced on the opportunity. Four one-goal games later, and Duluth was able to be crowned a national champion for the second time in school history, both times at the Xcel Energy Center, in its backyard and in front of a loyal crowd.
The Irish met a team so similar to them — in style, personnel and fate — that it may have just been too much to overcome. Duluth was relentless all night, throwing players into the forecheck and giving Notre Dame very little time to make decisions on the puck. While Morris made some crucial saves, it was two early mistakes that ended up costing dearly, and when the Irish needed some magic in the closing moments, they couldn’t manage a shot on goal.
It’s games like this where it’s tough to walk away with a clear idea of what actually went wrong. Notre Dame didn’t play that poorly, and while the offense struggled to score, the Irish haven’t been an explosive team all year. Duluth just made a few more plays, and the Irish couldn’t capitalize on the few chances they had. And while this tremendous season shouldn’t be forgotten, all the success certainly feels incomplete without the crowning jewel.
While the next year is always uncertain, Notre Dame can count on having a target on its back. With the way the Irish ran away with the Big Ten title and the emergence of the other teams in the conference, next year’s conference will by no means be a cakewalk. The loss of seniors always hurts as well, and with head coach Jeff Jackson’s team, it will be no different: The re-emergence of senior defenseman Justin Wade and his physicality gave the Irish defense a much-needed boost, and the play and leadership of forward Jake Evans and defenseman Jordan Gross will be hard to replace.
But that doesn’t mean the future still isn’t bright. The Irish will have another deep team next year, and with Morris still around, this team will still be a force to be reckoned with.
We’ll just have to see if the magic won’t run out.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.