When Minnesota Duluth hops over the boards and hits the ice hooting and hollering for practice at 3:15 p.m. Wednesday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, it will be the third time in four seasons the Bulldogs senior class will be practicing for an NCAA Frozen Four.

There is one exception.

That would be UMD senior graduate transfer Matt Cairns. The defenseman from Mississauga, Ontario, is taking part in his first ever Frozen Four this week after playing his first three seasons of college hockey at Cornell and graduating this summer.

UMD takes on Massachusetts at 8 p.m. Thursday in the second of two national semifinal games being played at the home of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.

Minnesota Duluth defenseman Matt Cairns (22) and Denver forward Jake Durflinger (16) exchange words between plays as an official tries to break them up in the second period Wednesday, Dec. 2, at Baxter Arena in the NCHC Pod in Omaha. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Minnesota Duluth defenseman Matt Cairns (22) and Denver forward Jake Durflinger (16) exchange words between plays as an official tries to break them up in the second period Wednesday, Dec. 2, at Baxter Arena in the NCHC Pod in Omaha. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

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Like the Bulldogs, the Big Red were on track to not only make the NCAA tournament a year ago, but be one of the tournament’s four No. 1 seeds until COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and the NCAA canceled its remaining 2019-20 postseason tournaments.

“Last year there were three or four teams that really felt like they could win it, really felt like they were going to be able to make a run, and we were definitely one of those teams,” said Cairns, a 2016 third-round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers. “It was tough to see (the season shut down), especially for our seniors, too. I'm sure it was much of the same thing here at UMD last year.”

At 21-2-4, the ECAC regular-season champion Big Red were the top seed heading into their postseason tournament and No. 3 in the Pairwise rankings when everything got shut down. Cornell was No. 1 in both national polls as well at the time, and finished there after one final vote that spring.

The 2019-20 tournament would have been Cornell’s fourth-consecutive NCAA tournament berth after missing four in a row. The program was hoping to return to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2003 after losing in the regional semifinals in 2017 and 2018 and then in the regional final to Providence in Providence in 2019.

Led by Hobey Baker Memorial Award top-10 finalist Mogan Barron, Cairns said of his three seasons at Cornell, they felt like the 2019-20 Big Red was the best team and the most capable of reaching the Frozen Four.

“We definitely felt like last year we had our best team,” Cairns said. “It was tough.”

The Cornell men’s hockey program has yet to resume play since the pandemic was declared, opting to sit out the 2020-21 season along with eight other ECAC members. None of the Ivy League’s eight member schools — six of which sponsor hockey — have participated in any sports this season.

Cairns is one of two players from the 2019-20 Big Red men’s hockey team who have played in 2020-21 along with senior forward Tristan Mullin, who transferred to Vermont at the holiday break.

An official jumps clear of Minnesota Duluth defenseman Matt Cairns (22) and North Dakota defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker (24) competing for the puck during the NCAA Men's Hockey Midwest Regional at Scheels Arena in Fargo, North Dakota Saturday, March 27, 2021. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
An official jumps clear of Minnesota Duluth defenseman Matt Cairns (22) and North Dakota defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker (24) competing for the puck during the NCAA Men's Hockey Midwest Regional at Scheels Arena in Fargo, North Dakota Saturday, March 27, 2021. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Cairns said some of his best friends are still part of the Cornell program, and he’s heard from them a lot in recent days leading up to the Frozen Four.

“I've heard from from a lot of guys, a lot of the guys are giving me great support. It's been awesome to hear from them,” Cairns said. “I think they're really really rooting for me and for us. They want to see us go all the way. It’s really great to see.”

After appearing in 32 of 36 games as a sophomore at Cornell, Cairns played in just 19 games a year ago as a junior. He was a healthy scratch for the final six regular season games (the ECAC tournament was canceled before it could begin) and played his last game for the Big Red on Feb. 9, 2020.

As a Bulldog, Cairns has suited up for all 27 games this season. He has no goals, but a collegiate-best six assists for a collegiate-best six points. His plus-16 rating leads the team heading into the Frozen Four — he was plus-17 at the end of the regular season to lead the NCHC — as he’s only been on the ice for seven even-strength goals this season.

“He’s had a huge impact since the day he stepped on campus in August,” said UMD senior wing Nick Swaney, one of six Bulldogs to be making their third appearance in the Frozen Four. “It’s pretty cool for him to get to the Frozen Four, to get to that next point.”

Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said Cairns has been a good leader for the team this season, and a vocal one. His work ethic is always consistently high, and he’s been such a good addition to the Bulldogs this year, that the coach feels like the blue liner has been with the program for four years now.

“It’s been a seamless transition for him,” Sandelin said. “I hope he feels the same way. I hope he feels like a big part of it, because he has.”

Sandelin said Cairns has made the biggest impact on two groups of Bulldogs. The first group are those who haven’t played as much as they’d like to this season. Cairns has been a good resource for those players who has taught his teammates how to navigate that challenge in a positive way, Sandelin said.

The second group is UMD’s young defenseman. Cairns has been paired with freshmen defensemen Connor Kelley and Darian Gotz for most of the year, and been credited with the leaps both have taken since the start of the season back in December in Omaha.

Minnesota Duluth defenseman Darian Gotz (2) and defenseman Matt Cairns (22) defend a shot from Minnesota Duluth forward Tanner Laderoute (13) during practice at Scheels Arena in Fargo, North Dakota Friday, March 26, 2021. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Minnesota Duluth defenseman Darian Gotz (2) and defenseman Matt Cairns (22) defend a shot from Minnesota Duluth forward Tanner Laderoute (13) during practice at Scheels Arena in Fargo, North Dakota Friday, March 26, 2021. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

“He's always communicating with those guys, whether it's on the rink, on the bench, off the rink — those are important factors,” Sandelin said. “Kids don't like to talk on the rink very much, but I'm never going to tell a guy to shut up on the rink because I think it's really a valuable tool for everybody, and it makes the game a little bit easier. He’s been great that way.”

Cairns was only supposed to be with the Bulldogs for one year, however, the NCAA is not counting the 2020-21 season toward anyone’s eligibility. With a bachelor’s degree from Cornell in applied economics and management with a focus in finance already on his wall, Cairns could return to UMD next season to play a fifth season of college hockey, and complete his graduate degree from UMD in multidisciplinary research.

Cairns, who could become a free agent this summer if he doesn’t sign with the Oilers, said he hasn’t made a decision yet about his future. Right now he’s having too much fun enjoying the present, which has worked out better than he ever could have imagined.

“The funny thing is — I said this to my parents — with everything working out right now, it feels like somebody is watching over me, and really helping me out,” Cairns said. “It's just been amazing this whole past year how everything's worked out for myself and obviously for our team as well.”