ST. PAUL, Minn. – From the time that Mike Montgomery and his classmates at the University of Minnesota-Duluth arrived in the Twin Ports as freshmen, playing at the Xcel Energy Center was an important goal.
Not for the Frozen Four, mind you, where the Bulldogs will play against Michigan for the NCAA Championship on Saturday night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN), for Montogmery, Kyle Schmidt, Justin Fontaine and the other UMD seniors, getting to St. Paul for the WCHA Final Five would have been a big step.
While the UMD program had turned out a couple of solid NHL pros in the likes of Tim Stapleton, Matt Niskanen and Mason Raymond, the school had played just one game at the Final Five in the previous three seasons following an appearance in the 2004 NCAA Frozen Four in Boston. That game came in 2006 after upsetting Denver, the defending NCAA Champion, in the first round of the WCHA Playoffs, and Duluth was handily beaten by St. Cloud, 5-1.
However, since the arrival of Montgomery and company, the Bulldogs have gotten back to St. Paul, and made memories here, winning the 2009 WCHA Championship by defeating Minnesota and North Dakota. Now, the Bulldogs are one game away from an even bigger prize: the first NCAA Championship in program history.
“When we got here,” Montgomery said, “we were kind of deep into the losing ways. The team and the program have come a long way, and I’m just really glad I could be a part of it.”
Reaching this sort of moment is exactly what Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin had in mind when he came to Duluth in 2000, taking a team that finished last in the conference in his first season and making it into an NCAA Championship contender.
“I’ve had a vision since I’ve got here,” Sandelin said. “When I came here, I left a pretty good program in North Dakota. I always felt that, growing up in Hibbing, Minn., and watching UMD, the players and playing against them, that I felt that this program could win. That’s why I accepted that challenge to take the job. It’s been some good years, and some not-so-good years.
“But we’ve got a great group of kids, we’ve had a lot of great kids. A lot of things have to go right, but my goal since I’ve got here was to try and get to this point, and hopefully have a chance to win. I felt this program should be there. It used to be there in the ’80s. It’s been certainly a lot of fun, certainly some challenges, but our vision is to have those expectations.”
There have been moments – the 2007 Broadmoor Trophy among them – but the expectations have been largely unmet since that 2004 Frozen Four, where the Bulldogs fell to Denver in the semifinals. Minnesota Duluth led that game by scores of 2-0 and 3-1, but the Pioneers got three goals in the third period to win the game and head onto the championship contest, defeating Maine to win the first of back-to-back NCAA Championships.
Those memories came flooding back to Sandelin on Thursday against Notre Dame, where the Bulldogs emerged victorious with a 4-3 win, despite being outshot 15-2 in the final period.
“It’s scary,” Sandelin said. “When we were up 4-2, I thought about being up 3-1. I hate those negative-type thinkings. We talked about, last night, closing out the game. I think this team is similar, but yet different [from the 2004 team]. They found ways to win, and I think every year is a little bit different. But for me, I was a little nervous when that thought crept into my head. It was the same thing in ’04, when somebody had mentioned that we hadn’t lost a lead in 27 games going into the third period that year, and sure enough, we did. So I’m glad we got that out of the way against Bemidji earlier in the [WCHA] Final Five.”
Now, the Bulldogs are ready to face a new challenge in Michigan, a team UMD hasn’t played since October 2001. The Bulldogs have come a long way since then, and Sandelin is looking forward to finding a way to beat Michigan on Saturday night.
“Traditionally,” Sandelin said, “I know how Michigan plays. They like to play an up-tempo game. They always get skill players. They always find guys that fit into their program and can play up and down the rink. They certainly have some guys that are good offensive players, but that’s what you need. You need good balance, you need that depth. Again, a very good team, very well coached. It should be a heck of a game.”
It’s a game that Schmidt and the rest of the Bulldogs, seniors and underclassmen alike, are ready for.
“Starting two weeks ago every game was the biggest game of my life,” Schmidt said, “and Saturday will be the same. [Saturday night] night will be huge and hopefully I got all the jitters out [Thursday] night. I had a tough time falling asleep [Thursday] night, hopefully that is out of the way and I can fall asleep [Friday].”
If Schmidt can close his eyes, it’s not hard to figure out what he’ll dream about. He’s probably been dreaming about it for four years.
Saturday, however, that dream has never been more possible.