Can you believe this? That we’re here? Again?
We’re talking another epic run, another championship chase, an unlikely hero, Hollywood-defying storylines, and thrills and memories to fuel fans’ lifetimes of tales.
We’re talking about our University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men’s hockey team being back in the NCAA tournament’s finals, the “Frozen Four,” for a fourth consecutive time — and with a chance to win a third-straight national championship this week.
And that’s on the heels of the UMD women’s hockey team coming within an overtime goal of a national championship appearance just two weeks ago at the women’s Frozen Four in Erie, Pennsylvania.
These are the glory days. Right now. Our hockey town is on top of the college hockey mountain, daring all others to try — you just try — to knock us off. All of Duluth and all Bulldogs’ fans and supporters everywhere can count themselves fortunate just to be along for this wild, chest-puffing ride.
The UMD men’s return to the Frozen Four this season was as wild as it gets. Last Saturday’s regional title tilt lasted into Sunday. It took five overtimes and a record 142 minutes and 13 seconds to play. It was against rival North Dakota, no less, and the Fighting Hawks scored not one but two extra-attacker goals to force the extra sessions. In the first OT, a goal and an apparent UMD victory was heartbreakingly snuffed out by video review. In the fourth, UMD actually switched goaltenders.
And in the fifth OT, it was one of the unlikeliest of heroes, freshman Luke Mylymok — who had scored just one goal all season — who found the net with the game-winner.
It wasn’t Cole Koepke, as you might have expected, with his team-high 14 goals on the season. Or even Nick Swaney or Kobe Roth, both of whom have 13 goals this year. Or Jackson Cates, with his team-high 16 assists.
Nope, it was Mylymok, who doesn’t play a lot but who tries always “to be a good teammate on the bench, making your voice heard and letting the guys know you’re there for them,” as he said, according to coverage by News Tribune hockey writer Matt Wellens. “You try to be a huge energy guy.”
But it was because he doesn’t play a lot that Mylymok had fresh legs eight periods into what normally is a three-period game. That was huge, as it turned out. “I knew I had to get some speed going into the shot and use the (defenseman) as a screen because I was pretty far out,” he said. “I pulled it in and shot it. It went five hole. You’re not looking for five hole, but you’ll take what you can get.”
What college hockey fans get now is a wealth of can’t-make-this-stuff-up storylines, including a UMD team where the unexpected clearly can be expected.
Minnesota’s claim as the best hockey state in the nation is well represented at the Frozen Four, being played Thursday and Saturday in Pittsburgh. Three of its four teams hail from Minnesota. Joining UMD are St. Cloud State University and Minnesota State University-Mankato. Making that claim even stronger is that 54 Minnesota high schools were represented by players participating in this year’s NCAA men’s hockey tournament.
UMD faces the only non-Minnesota Frozen Four team on Thursday. The semifinal pairing with the University of Massachusetts is actually a rematch of the 2019 national championship game — won by UMD 3-0 to claim its second straight national title. (A third-straight national title is the quest for UMD this season because the Frozen Four wasn’t played last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
If — sorry, when — UMD advances from Thursday’s game to Saturday’s national championship, if it plays St. Cloud, the Huskies’ coach is Duluth native and former UMD assistant Brett Larson. And if it plays Mankato, UMD Coach Scott Sandelin’s son is a sophomore forward on that Mavericks team.
Talk about drama. And talk about an unprecedented thrill ride for UMD fans, one that demands to be cherished after so many gut-punch seasons of falling short.
Believe it. We’re here. Again. For another wild ride to remember.