It's impossible to talk about the 2017-18 NCAA champion Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs without mentioning the leadership of Karson Kuhlman.
But when it comes time for Kuhlman to reminisce about his role as captain of that squad, it's impossible for him not to praise his lone assistant, Parker Mackay.
"He was so crucial to helping me out with the little things," said Kuhlman, who now plays for the NHL's Boston Bruins. "I knew I couldn't get to everything. He was so good with those younger guys and they respect him so much. He did an excellent job last year."
While Kuhlman prepares for what could be his first Stanley Cup playoff game this week, his former teammates continue their quest to repeat as national champions, taking on Providence at 4 p.m. Thursday in the first of two NCAA Frozen Four semifinals at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
Mackay, an undrafted free agent wing from Irma, Alberta, said he learned a lot last season working with Kuhlman, the Esko native who also went undrafted and may take the ice two hours after the Bulldogs do for Game 1 of a best-of-seven first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs at TD Garden in Boston.
Kuhlman was a captain who showed up to the rink every day like a professional no matter what day of the week it was. That's important for a leader at the college level, to lead by example on and off the ice, Mackay said.
"I still don't think that I'm doing it quite to his level," Mackay said. "He was unbelievable at that. I was a little more of a rah-rah guy last year. And I still like to be even this year."
New season, new challenges
After replacing 10 veterans from the 2016-17 squad that reached the NCAA championship game in Chicago with 10 freshmen, "patience" was the word that best described the leadership style of Kuhlman and Mackay en route to winning it all in St. Paul.
Now as defending champs, with sky-high expectations inside and outside the locker room, Mackay said the opposite of "patience" was required to get back to the Frozen Four.
"Last year was about pulling the young guys along and making sure they're doing things the right way out there. This year it's been more of just staying on guys, not letting guys get complacent," Mackay said.
"We knew the challenges were definitely going to be different. (Coach Scott Sandelin) and I talked about it at the start of the year. We were excited for them, though. And there were times where it was frustrating, when we were a .500 club for a little bit down the stretch. It wasn't easy just trying to find our game every night. And it's hard to deal with success sometimes, but obviously we've done a great job with that lately, and we've been playing good hockey."
The Bulldogs have put together a perfect postseason, sweeping Nebraska-Omaha at Amsoil Arena and beating Denver and St. Cloud State in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Xcel Energy Center to win the league's postseason title. Last weekend, the Bulldogs beat Bowling Green and Quinnipiac in the NCAA Midwest Regional to book their third consecutive trip to the Frozen Four.
Three of the six wins have required overtime, with two extra periods necessary to knock off the NCHC regular-season champion Huskies.
But as Mackay said, the Bulldogs were a .500 team to close the regular season going 5-5 in their final 10 games. UMD's work prior to that point was good enough to get the program a second seed in the NCHC playoffs and a top-four ranking in the national polls and Pairwise Rankings. However, it wasn't good enough to keep the team playing into April, or to win in April.
There was no time in February or late March for patience, Mackay said.
"Yes, you maybe need to take a step back and just realize that you're in a good spot, but at the same time, I think Sandy and even myself just knew that the hockey that we were playing at times wasn't going to be good enough down the stretch," Mackay said.
"It's fun to see how far this team has come. We've become a really, really tight team, especially these last couple couple of weeks here, just with the success and the types of games that we've been playing in. We've won some really close games."
Leading by example
Mackay may not think he is leading by example quite like Kuhlman did, but his teammates this season seem to think otherwise.
Senior center Peter Krieger said Mackay has done a terrific job making sure the team fights complacency.
"It's hard to do, it's hard to control a team that just won a national championship," Krieger said. "You're on this high and then you realize you got to go back to work, what got you there, strap on the boots. (Mackay) is doing a great job managing that for us and keeping every guy accountable day-in and day-out, which is not easy."
Then there are Mackay's statistics, which also tell a story.
After posting a combined 21 goals and 16 assists for 37 points in his first three seasons as a Bulldog, Mackay has set single-season collegiate highs of 15 goals and 15 assists for 30 points.
Mackay has three goals and three assists in postseason play, including the game-tying and game-winning goals in the 2-1 overtime win in the regional semifinal against Bowling Green. He clinched the Frozen Four berth with an empty-net goal against Quinnipiac for a 3-1 win in the regional final.
"He works hard, probably one of the hardest workers. That's what you need out of a leader," UMD junior wing Riley Tufte said. "He's even scoring big goals for us, too. We saw that in regionals. That's just a huge time, a huge-time player for him to score two goals like that."
Kuhlman said he pinpointed Mackay as a leader during their first season together in 2015-16, when Kuhlman was just a sophomore and Mackay a freshman.
Sandelin said he knew he had a captain in Mackay before that. It's why the coach recruited the leader of the Alberta Junior Hockey League's Spruce Grove Saints in the first place, to guide his program to success.
"His play through the course of the year and, more importantly, last weekend was big for us. That's what good leaders do," Sandelin said. "They step up. He scored big goals for us and had a great tournament and was a real key reason why we're we're advancing."
NCAA FROZEN FOUR
At KeyBank Center, Buffalo, N.Y.
• Providence (24-11-6) vs. Minnesota Duluth (27-11-2), 4 p.m. (ESPN2/KDAL-AM 610/KDAL-FM 103.9)
• Denver (24-11-5) vs. Massachusetts (30-9), 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
• Semifinal winners, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)