ST. PAUL, Minn. — And the last shall be first.
That has been the ironic story of the NCAA tournament the past few years. Starting with Yale in 2013, the final team to qualify for the tournament as an at-large team has gone 14-3. Both Yale and Providence (2015) won national championships.
With its 2-1 victory over Ohio State in Thursday’s Frozen Four semifinals, Minnesota Duluth moved to within one game of making it three long shot titles. If the Bulldogs can continue the astonishing, counterintuitive trend with a win on Saturday, it will be an especially O. Henry stunner of an ending to a season that had appeared to be dead and buried three weeks ago.
A team expected to be rebuilding following its much more probable trip to the 2017 title game, the Bulldogs fell to Denver 3-1 in the NCHC tournament, and then presumably took the final nail in its coffin when North Dakota beat them 4-1 in the third-place game.
“I sat in the front of the bus, checked my phone here and there, looking at two games,” Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. “The Princeton and [Boston University] games didn’t go our way.
“Someone brought up the fact that there was another opportunity [for us to get in], there was another scenario. I’m like, ‘Really? OK. Good.’
“Guys were watching it on their computer. We got home just in time to see the end of the Ohio State and Notre Dame [Big Ten championship game].”
Notre Dame won, and Duluth was in the NCAA tournament.
“I had a beer,” Sandelin said.
Then he got his team ready for the tournament.
“It was a pretty dramatic bus ride home,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, the way we got in was really an eye-opener for our guys. They knew [we] could have been done, [but] it gave them a second life. They’ve taken advantage of it.”
Having squeaked into the tournament by the skin of their teeth, the Bulldogs have embraced the underdog role and made a specialty out of winning one-goal games.
“When you’re fighting for your life to get in the tournament, you’re playing playoff hockey a couple weeks earlier than everyone else,” Jared Thomas said. “You get on a run, keep it going and figure out how to play tough, close games.
“We’ve had to crawl and scratch our way from basically the bottom at the start of the season to where we are now. It’s been a heck of a run that we’ve put together. Hopefully, [we can] come out on Saturday and finish it off.”