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2021 NCAA Frozen Four: Calm and confident, Duluth’s Larson attempts to bring another Minnesota program its first national championship

Apr. 10—PITTSBURGH — Minnesota Duluth will not be playing for a national championship Saturday following a 3-2 overtime loss to Massachusetts in the semifinals of the Frozen Four late Thursday night.

That doesn’t mean the city of Duluth and Bulldogs’ program is without a rooting interest, however, when St. Cloud State takes on the Minutemen at 6 p.m. Saturday at PPG Paints Arena in the NCAA title game.

The Huskies are coached by a very familiar face in Brett Larson, the Duluth native and Denfeld High School graduate who went on to play four years for the Bulldogs from 1991-95. He later returned to the UMD program, after his professional playing days came to an end, as an assistant coach on two occasions.

Larson, 48, helped the Bulldogs win their first NCAA men’s hockey national championship in 2011 during his first three-year stint as an assistant coach under Scott Sandelin from 2008-2011. He was there again for the second title in 2018 — both at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul — when he returned to work under Sandelin for another three seasons as an assistant from 2015-2018.

Now in his third season as head coach of the Huskies, Larson has SCSU in the national championship game for the first time in program history, and is a win away from bringing another Minnesota school its first NCAA Division men’s hockey championship a mere 33 years after the Huskies elevated to the Division I level.

“I don’t know if it’s just me, but you don’t think about the big picture stuff. In all honesty, I’m just thinking about how to break the puck out tomorrow,” Larson said Friday. “We’ve worked a lot this year — and I don’t know if maybe it’s just a good life lesson with COVID — about really appreciating the day that you’re in and being thankful for the day that you have, because you don’t know with a (positive) test the next day what could happen to your team, or what game could be canceled or what practice can be canceled. We’ve really tried to have a narrow focus day in and day out. We’ve tried to keep that consistent throughout the playoffs and we’re doing the same today.”

— Larson’s transition from UMD to SCSU gets boost from Herb Brooks

— Bulldogs’ quest for three-peat ends with 3-2 OT loss to UMass

— St. Cloud State rallies to beat Minnesota State in final minute, advances to NCAA title game

The Huskies reached Saturday’s national championship game via a rollercoaster 5-4 victory over Minnesota State-Mankato in the Frozen Four semifinals on Thursday in Pittsburgh. SCSU led 3-1 in the opening minutes of the second and trailed 4-3 four-plus minutes into the third before junior forward Nolan Walker scored the game-winning goal with 53.2 seconds left in the game to advance.

St. Cloud State has trailed in all three of its NCAA tournament games thus far in 2021, but Walker said the team always stays confident and calm in those situations. That all comes from “Coach Lars,” the players said.

“Lars has been a leader for us,” Huskies senior forward Will Hammer said. “He keeps us on the same page and going in the same direction. The one thing that he really brings to our group is he helps in those one-goal games. For some teams, it’s hard. It’s hard to deal with ebbs and flows in the game, but he keeps us on the track and keeps us on our game plan as much as we can. That’s all credit to him, and it’s going to be no different tomorrow. I’m sure it’s going to be a close game and we’re gonna need Lars.”

Hearing that his players said they feed of his calm and confident demeanor on the bench during games, Larson laughed, calling it funny. He may look that way, but even after 13 seasons of coaching in college and juniors, Larson still said he still doesn’t feel that way on the inside.

“We joke a lot about that as a player, at least you can get in the game and you get those nerves out in that first shift. As a coach, I’m nervous that whole game,” Larson said. “I’m not going lie to you. I’m not nervous, but there’s that in-game anxiety that doesn’t go away. You always have to be focused and in the moment. I’m glad they think I look like that (calm) on the outside, because it does not always feel like that on the inside.”