At the beginning of the season, statistical workers in the Amsoil Arena press box took guesses at how many goals Minnesota Duluth senior center Jared Thomas would score in 2017-18.
The most any one of them was willing to give Thomas was six. The low was two.
Like the professional prognosticators who wrote the Bulldogs off in the preseason, Thomas' critics were dead wrong. The Hermantown native heads into Saturday's NCAA championship game against Notre Dame with 10 goals on the season, double his total from the three previous seasons combined. His 25 total points also surpasses his combined total from the last two seasons.
According to teammates and coaches, the career year isn't because Thomas had some sort of offensive awakening in the offseason. It's not like he's found some long-lost skills from high school and juniors, when he posted double-digit goals each season with the Hawks and Sioux City Musketeers of the United States Hockey League.
It's the complete opposite. Thomas has become a well-rounded, 200-foot centerman who uses his defensive abilities to create offense from himself, and those around him.
"I think he's had an outstanding year this year," Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. "Obviously offensively he's contributed a lot more this year. Coming in, he had good offensive numbers coming out of high school and junior hockey. But like a lot of players that come out, it's hard. It's hard to score like you did in high school and maybe even juniors. Every level you move up it's hard.
"His hockey the last month and a half, two months has probably been some of his best. And that's what you expect and hope out of your older players, your seniors. And even though he's not wearing a letter, he's showing a lot of leadership."
No play exemplified the height of Thomas' game more than the second goal the Bulldogs scored three-plus minutes into Thursday's 2-1 Frozen Four semifinal win over Ohio State.
Pressure by Thomas forced the Buckeyes to make a bad pass and a turnover at their own blue line to UMD senior captain Karson Kuhlman. While the puck gilded Kuhlman's way, Thomas bolted down the ice. Kuhlman sent a pass through the neutral zone -- splitting a pair of scrambling Buckeyes -- to Thomas, who skated in for a backhander through the five-hole of Ohio State junior goaltender Sean Romeo.
"The last month he's been making some plays," said Kuhlman, who also highlighted Thomas' set-up pass to freshman wing Nick Swaney on the game-tying goal two weeks ago in the West Regional semifinal against Minnesota State-Mankato. "To be honest, it's been all year. He's come a long way since freshman and sophomore year. He's a lot more confident with the puck and really good in the defensive zone, too. I'm happy with how his game progressed. We'd like to pop in a few more (Saturday)."
College hockey: Duluth looks to rekindle Xcel Energy Center magic at Frozen Four
Thomas is no stranger to big-time goals at Xcel Energy Center, where he showed he had the offensive skills at Hermantown.
As a sophomore, Thomas scored the game-winning goal in a 7-6 overtime win over Mahtomedi in the Class A semifinals. As a junior, he scored two goals in a Class A championship loss to St. Thomas Academy. The next year as a senior, he helped the Hawks to a third straight Class A state championship game by scoring a pair of goals in the semifinal against Thief River Falls, including the game-winner in the third period.
Prior to Thursday, Thomas considered the OT winner his sophomore year his most memorable goal at Xcel Energy Center. That has since been replaced.
"I would definitely take (Thursday) night's goal over that one, just because it's the Frozen Four," said Thomas, whose celebration Thursday after scoring would make any high school hockey hot shot jealous. "High school hockey is high school hockey. It's great when you're there, but once you move on, college hockey is that much harder. It makes it that much more special. I definitely have a new favorite goal in this building. It was an unreal feeling watching the puck go into the net and give us a 2-0 lead there really early in the game."
Despite all of his individual success at Xcel, Thomas has achieved minimal team success with the Bulldogs and Hawks at the home of the NHL's Minnesota Wild.
Thomas and the Hawks played in three straight Class A championship games between 2010-12 -- the start of an eight-year run for Hermantown -- and lost all three, including the last two to a St. Thomas Academy team that featured Thomas' current teammate, junior center Peter Krieger.
UMD won the now-defunct North Star College Cup at Xcel a year ago, but three weeks prior to this year's Frozen Four the Bulldogs lost twice in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, and the defeats nearly kept UMD out of the NCAA tournament.
Thomas said Saturday's NCAA championship game is about redemption, but not for his teams' previous shortfalls in St. Paul. He's past those, especially the high school defeats. Those were put to rest thanks to the Hawks' victories in 2016, and especially 2017 when his brother, Justin, helped the Hawks claim a second consecutive title.
No, Saturday's title bout with Notre Dame is all about seeking redemption for last year's 3-2 loss to Denver in the championship at United Center in Chicago.
"We were close to winning it all last year," Thomas said. "Just the fact that we're in that same game again, it's pretty crazy. If we can get some redemption for the all the guys who were on the team last year, that's what we want to do -- end the season with a win, end the season as national champs."
This article is written by Matt Wellens from Duluth News Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.