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NCAA Frozen Four: An unlikely hero as Duluth wins title

Ryan Lambert
Puck Daddy

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In which we recap the day's events in the NCAA tournament.

It wasn't a night for superstars.

One might have expected any win for the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, improbable though it may have seemed even a month ago, to be delivered by its alarmingly prolific top line of Mike Connolly, Jack Connolly and Justin Fontaine.

The three combined for 161 points in 41 games this year. And they were never more intimidating than when they had a power play. In Duluth's three previous NCAA games, Connolly-Connolly-Fontaine combined for nearly every goal the team scored, including seven power play goals (and a shortie) of the total 11.

But Michigan coach Red Berenson has been around the block a time or 12 and he had a plan: If Duluth was going to win, it wouldn't be those damn Connolly boys that did the damage.

Problem is, when the truly important games go to overtime, it's rarely a beautiful highlight reel play from a prolific go-to guy that picks up the game-winning goal. And tonight, a guy that was actually recognized as the nation's unsung hero picked up the most important goal in the history of both his career and his program.

Minnesota Duluth senior Kyle Schmidt scored 3:22 into overtime to lead the Bulldogs to a 3-2 win over the most successful program in NCAA hockey history to take the school's first national title. The Connollys and Fontaines of the world will certainly settle for that.

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Berenson's plan looked masterful for pretty much all of the game: First, roll the line centered by Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick Matt Rust opposite UMD's big guns, and do it often. Rust wins draws like crazy — that's actually what led to Ben Winnett's goal to open Michigan's account in the first period — and is a stalwart in his own end.

It worked. The Bulldogs' big line was on the ice for two goals against and none for, and despite the large number of shots they put on net, none went in.

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Next, don't make the same mistake Union, Yale and Notre Dame did when killing penalties. Passivity spelled death for all three of UMD's previous opponents, so even as Michigan took penalty after penalty, each more undisciplined than the last, the Michigan PK was not about to sit there and let the Connollys, Fontaine, Carolina Hurricanes draft pick Justin Faulk and Mike Montgomery cycle the puck as quickly or easily as they had in the past. Michigan always had a guy right in the puck carrier's face.

And of course, that plan might not seem to have worked as well. After all, Duluth did score a power play. But that was on nine (count 'em) opportunities, and the guy that picked up that goal was pretty much the opposite of a Connolly or Fontaine. Max Tardy, a Duluth native and St. Louis Blues seventh-rounder, scored it to pick up his first goal of the year.

Interestingly, not one goal in the game was what you'd call pretty, or came from a guy you might have expected. Winnett's deflected of a UMD defenseman and was his fourth of the year. The puck that bounced onto Travis Oleksuk's stick to even things at 1-all was just his 14th. Jeff Rohrkemper scored Michigan's second of the game, but it was just his third of the season. Schmidt's was his 11th.

Meanwhile, the Connollys, Fontaine, and Michigan stars Carl Hagelin, Louie Caporusso (who were drafted by the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators, respectively) combined for no points and a minus-6.

It's probably fitting it worked out that way. After all, Michigan has an NCAA-record nine national titles in its trophy case. It was one of just 17 schools in Division 1 history to win even one. This was just Duluth's second national title game appearance ever.

So let the upstarts have this one. They earned it.

Three Stars

1. Kyle Schmidt, Minnesota Duluth

Anyone who watched a second of the tournament coverage on ESPN heard and saw what Duluth did as a team bonding exercise before the NCAAs started. They all bleached their hair blond. Except Kyle Schmidt. He's getting married this summer and his fiancee wouldn't let him. But I guess if you score the game-winning goal in overtime of the national title game, you can get away with that kind of thing.

2. Kenny Reiter, Minnesota Duluth

Really, I could have put either Reiter or Shawn Hunwick here. Not one of the goals was even remotely soft or their fault, and both made a few saves that belonged on a SportsCenter highlight reel. Reiter made 22 saves on 24 shots but more importantly picked up the W, which I feel is important in a game of this gravity.

3. Matt Rust, Michigan

Yes, he earned an assist on the first goal of the game, but far more importantly, he allowed Michigan to be in the game at all by effectively bottling up that lethal UMD top line. It was an excellent performance in a largely defensive role, and he was Michigan's best player by far.

Ryan Lambert covers the NCAA hockey tournament for Puck Daddy. You can e-mail him here if you want, but you should definitely follow him on Twitter.

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