Frozen Four preview: Minnesota Duluth overcomes personnel losses for unlikely return

Minnesota Duluth overcame heavy personnel losses to return to the Frozen Four (photo: Jim Rosvold).

The Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs weren’t expected to be in St. Paul for the Frozen Four this year.

Aside from the sheer number of things that had to go right for the Bulldogs to make the Frozen Four after they lost two games at the Xcel Energy Center during the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, at the start of the year most observers felt it would be a down year for the Bulldogs.

That’s what happens when a team loses seven seniors plus three underclassmen, including the starting goaltender and six of the top eight scorers. At least one of the coaches of a team in the Frozen Four attributed the team’s success to coach Scott Sandelin.

“It says a lot, first of all, about Scott and his staff and their program,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. “We’re pretty good friends with the Duluth program, we play them quite regularly, we play them again next year. I have nothing but great respect for Scott and what he’s accomplished at Duluth. It’s a great story. He’s one of the better coaches in the country, if not one of the top two or three.”

Duluth’s season has been a study in contrast. After an opening-night win against in-state rival Minnesota — it played a huge part in the Bulldogs edging out the Gophers to make the NCAA tournament — it followed with two losses and two ties, then finished October with three wins.

At that point, the team was hit with several injuries. The rest of the first half, the Bulldogs struggled, going 3-7.

However, the team hit the reset button at the start of the second half, getting a win and tie on the road in the Ledyard Bank tournament and following with sweeps of Colorado College and North Dakota in opening the second half 10-4-1.

For the Bulldogs, several things changed. Hunter Shepard earned the starting role in net and settled in, setting both a program and NCHC record for single season shutouts with eight. The Ledyard Bank weekend also was important because the team came together even though five players were out of the lineup at the World Junior Championship.

“It’s just been a weird year,” Sandelin said in an interview with USCHO after the Ledyard tournament. “I mean, we went through October going pretty good, I think, and getting some momentum and come out of that the end of October with all the injuries. And starting in November we were missing four or five guys, so you have different lines. The chemistry was being built and then it kind of got torn down and then you get those guys back and we played some pretty good hockey.”

Compared to the other teams in the Frozen Four, the Bulldogs lack a standout offensive player. Freshman defenseman Scott Perunovich leads the team in scoring with 36 points, which is less than the point-per-game mark.

Sandelin acknowledged the role of scoring by committee in his team’s success.

“When your team gets balanced scoring, it helps,” Sandelin said in an interview with USCHO after the Bulldogs swept Western Michigan in the first round of the NCHC tournament. “You’re chipping in here and there, whether it’s ‘Wolffy [Nick Wolff] or ‘Peruny’ [Perunovich] or Dylan Samberg getting his first goal. Those guys help when they do that. Last weekend was a good recipe. If that’s something that we can continue to get some different guys, different lines contributing, then that’s going to help us have some success.

The Bulldogs face Ohio State in the semifinal game, and Sandelin is expecting the game to have a great atmosphere.

“Any time you are playing in the Frozen Four, it’s certainly a very exciting time for your players and your program and your community, so we’re excited to get back there,” Sandelin said. “It’s great that it’s in St. Paul, a little closer to home.”

Despite losing half the team from last year, the Bulldogs do have that edge in experience from making the national championship game and only falling a goal short against Denver.

“I think it helps a little bit,” said Sandelin. “Obviously, we have 10 or 11 players that were there last year. Not all of them were playing, but I think it helps to some degree. We’re a real new team to this as far as all the younger players we have. I think that experience coming from guys like Karson Kuhlman and Jared Thomas that have been through this before, will help.”