Hunter Shepard insists that he's prepared for games the same way since he was 14 years old, save for a tweak here and there. That consistency is evident in his postseason play.
Shepard, who attended development camp with the Sabres last summer, stopped all 18 shots he faced to help lead Minnesota Duluth to a 3-0 win over Massachusetts in final game of the Frozen Four at KeyBank Center on Saturday.
Minnesota Duluth is the first program to repeat as national champions since Denver won back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005. Shepard, having backstopped the Bulldogs to last year's championship as well, is now 8-0 in NCAA Tournament play.
"Sheppy has been our brick wall all season long," senior captain Parker Mackay said. "He was our most consistent player. I think he was our most competitive player. … I don't think we are even close to where we are without him.
"He's come in these last two seasons and been unbelievable. He doesn't talk too loud or say too much when he's at the rink, but once he's on the ice, he's an absolute competitor and warrior. You want to go to war like that each and every day when you know how hard he's battling."
Minnesota Duluth played with the poise of a team appearing in its third straight national championship game. The Bulldogs roster featured 14 players with prior Frozen Four experience, a group that included Hunter, Mackay and sophomore defenseman Mikey Anderson.
They outshot the Minutemen 14-5 in the first period but emerged with just a 1-0 lead to show for it, which stemmed from a power-play goal scored by Mackay 3:51 into the contest.
Still, the Bulldogs persisted with the same physical, in-your-face identity in the second period, pinching hard along the boards to maintain possession in the offensive zone and staying cautious with their puck decisions. It paid off late in the period when Anderson - who earned the primary assist on Mackay's goal - caught a pass from the captain as he cut into the slot and buried a shot top-shelf.
Minnesota Duluth shut down UMass in the third period and freshman forward Jackson Cates all but sealed the victory when he scored with 2:42 remaining. The final shot tally was 31-18 in favor of the Bulldogs.
"Tonight was probably one of our best games we played for sure in the NCAA tournament, probably from our league tournament as well," Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. "It couldn't have come at a better time."
The loss brought a bitter end to what was a storybook season for UMass, just two years removed from a five-win campaign in Greg Carvel's first season as coach. Carvel and his team gave the program its first trip to the Frozen Four as well as its first Hobey Baker Award winner in sophomore defenseman Cale Makar.
Makar said he would talk to his parents before deciding whether to return to UMass or sign with the Colorado Avalanche, who drafted him with the fourth overall pick in 2017. He was still wearing his maroon Minutemen sweater when he stepped to the podium following the game, trying to soak in his collegiate career for as long as possible.
"I just want to keep it on as long as I can," Makar said. "It's a team that I'm very proud to wear. Our team has brought so much respect to this program. Honestly, it's going to be a couple of years that I'll never forget in my entire life."
Carvel admitted he does not expect Makar to return for his junior season, but said he believes his team will be better for the experience gained in a losing effort. He complimented Minnesota Duluth's back end - which includes NHL prospects in Anderson (Los Angeles) and Dylan Samberg (Winnipeg) - as having been as good as any his team had faced all season.
"They're a big, strong hockey team," Carvel said. "We knew that. I'm not sure why we were not our normal selves tonight. It's probably because of Duluth, but we have some kids on our team that usually play big and heavy and compete and create offense through that. It just wasn't there tonight.
"… This is a big stage. We looked like a young team. We looked like a team playing a team that's been here before, done this. We'll use this as a big step in our growth as a program."
UMass might still have its best days ahead. Minnesota Duluth was in the same position two years ago, having had to watch Denver celebrate a 3-2 win in the national championship game in Chicago.
Saturday night in Buffalo belonged to a Bulldogs team that etched its place in history. It belonged to Sandelin, who became the 10th coach in NCAA history to win three titles, and to the upperclassmen like Shepard and Mackay who got him there.
"At the end of the day, the players go out and play," Sandelin said. "I'm just fortunate that they listen. It's been pretty special. Again, I never take anything for granted because in this game it can change. I just want to enjoy it with these guys. I know they'll enjoy it the rest of their lives."