ST. PAUL, Minn. -- They played as if they didn't know they weren't supposed to win it all.
Or maybe the only Frozen Four team from outside the Big Ten just didn't care.
On Saturday night at the Xcel Energy Center, the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs -- the last team invited to the NCAA tournament -- were Division I champions after a 2-1 win over Notre Dame.
"When they made the tournament, they became that team of destiny you're always hoping to be at the end of the year," said Jeff Jackson, head coach at Notre Dame, one of two Big Ten teams Minnesota Duluth beat in the Frozen Four.
Five years ago, the Big Ten formed a men's hockey conference, a polarizing move that disrupted traditional rivalries and forced multiple leagues that had been anchored by the upstart conference's current pillars to fold and others to proceed with a reduced role on the national hockey scene.
This year, however, produced the Big Ten's work, a season that seemed to justify the previous moves. The conference sent the most teams to the NCAA tournament. And three of the four squads in the Frozen Four hailed from the Big Ten.
Yet, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference -- created after the Big Ten shook up the national landscape -- leaves St. Paul with its third consecutive national title, while the Big Ten continues to search for its first championship.
Minnesota Duluth spent $655,000 on men's hockey last year, per U.S. Department of Education data. Notre Dame, which joined the Big Ten this season, spent $1.6 million.
In college football and basketball, realignment has shifted power to a handful of leagues.
But in men's hockey, the Big Ten is still chasing some of the schools it left behind.
"Props [to the] Big Ten," said Karson Kuhlman, the Most Outstanding Player of the Frozen Four, this week. "Pretty awesome having three teams in here. But at the same time, we know that the NCHC is one of the top, if not the top, conference in college hockey. I think we've had teams on top of the charts for the majority of the year."
But Minnesota Duluth, last year's national runner-up, was not expected to represent its league in the final chapter of the season.
A few weeks ago, the Bulldogs were the 16th and final team selected in the men's hockey NCAA tournament pool after losing both games (Denver, North Dakota) in the Frozen Faceoff, its conference tournament finale, on March 16 and 17 at the Xcel Energy Center.
From there, the turbulent hockey program needed a multitude of dominoes to fall in their favor to help them squeeze into the field over rival Minnesota.
The team's by-the-skin-of-their-teeth act persisted in the NCAA tournament.
Before Saturday, no program with 16 losses had ever won a national title. No champion had ever won four consecutive one-goal games in the NCAA tournament. By all accounts, the Bulldogs, who lost to Denver in the 2016-17 national championship game, had a better club last year when they were led by a senior-laden nucleus with a handful players who played in the NHL this season.
This season's squad featured 10 freshmen. These Bulldogs finished third in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference's regular-season standings.
Yet, once the puck dropped in the NCAA tournament, they scrapped to win their first title since they captured the 2011 crown.
"I think barely making it in was kind of a wake-up call for our group," said Kuhlman, who scored the first goal against the Fighting Irish on Saturday night. "And then from there, we just took it one game at a time. It's four wins to win a national title, and that's what we did."
Just like their victory over Ohio State on Thursday, the Bulldogs scored twice in the opening period against Notre Dame on Saturday and then fought to preserve the win and national championship in the second and third.
The run was no fluke, though.
The Bulldogs beat three top-10 teams (Minnesota State, Ohio State and Notre Dame) in their four NCAA tournament games. They faced two of the best goalies in America in the Frozen Four: Ohio State's Sean Romeo and Notre Dame's Cale Morris, winner of the Mike Richter Award for the top goalie in the country.
Minnesota Duluth's Hunter Shepard surrendered just two scores, despite 40 combined shots on goal by Ohio State and Notre Dame.
Yes, the Bulldogs stumbled into the NCAA tournament.
As they piled atop one another in celebration on Saturday night, however, they knew they'd justified their presence in the field after leaving the Xcel Energy Center with a title no one can deny: best team in America.
"This group reset and refocused," said Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin, who won his second national title with the Bulldogs. "And I think they took advantage of an opportunity. When we won in , we lost to Bemidji State in the Thursday play-in game, took three days off and got in and won four straight. Sometimes that's all it takes."