With a trust developed, Minnesota Duluth’s blue line returns to big stage

Mikey Anderson, front, is one of five sophomores on the Minnesota Duluth blue line (photo: Melissa Wade).

BUFFALO, N.Y. — One of the top stories from last year’s title run by Minnesota Duluth was the performance of its young defensive corps.

Then-freshmen Scott Perunovich, Dylan Samberg, Mikey Anderson, Matt Anderson and Louie Roehl, plus sophomore Nick Wolff, matured quickly and played with poise under pressure to help lead the Bulldogs to a national championship.

Mikey Anderson, Perunovich and Samberg are all NHL draft picks, and although you sometimes see young talent opt for the pros after winning it all, there was no one-and-done at Duluth. All six defensemen came back for the 2018-19 season and have been better than ever.

The Bulldogs blueliners and goaltender Hunter Shepard have combined for a team defense that has allowed just 1.96 goals per game, fourth-best in the nation and better than last season’s stellar 2.09.

UMD has been particularly stingy in the third period, allowing only 21 goals in 40 games.

Coach Scott Sandelin said this season, like last year, has been a learning experience for his younger players.

“[Last season,] some of those guys were so naive to everything and just played hockey and really excelled,” he said. “Being a year older, there’s still been some struggles at times where, everything went well last year and they thought it was going to be the same way. But for the most part, with that extra year of experience they’ve had another good year.”

“Obviously, every year you go through some up and downs,” said Wolff, who is plus-17 this season. “This year kind of made us stick together a little bit more, gave us confidence that we can go through those tough times but also learn a lot from it. Obviously, that’s helped us through the tough stretches, through the playoff stretch, got us to where we are now.”

Perunovich again is the top offensive defenseman with 29 points, with Samberg contributing six goals, best among UMD’s blueliners.

“They really developed a trust,” said Sandelin. “They’ve played a lot of games. We knew last year, too, we were going to play those guys. We didn’t have much of a choice. We tried some different things. We kind of knew going in kind of what roles each guy may take on.

“I think last year there was some experimentation. We know Scottie [Perunovich] obviously is a real good offensive player, he’s going to run a power play. I think Mikey [Anderson] and Dylan [Samberg] developed into a real good pair that we could put out on the power play, kill penalties. It just kind of evolved into that.”

Wolff, an assistant captain, said he doesn’t need to be a leader with this group.

“I guess we’re used to having a lot of confidence in each other,” he said. “We know our roles, how we all play them. I wouldn’t consider myself a leader. We’re all just as experienced. We can all play each other’s role. We all build off each other. That gains a lot of trust between each other. That’s kind of how we play. It shows on the ice.”

Sandelin agreed. “From a coaching staff, there’s just a lot of trust based on what we’ve seen over not just last year but even this year, too,” he said. “I think they’ve grown as a group collectively. That’s certainly been a backbone of our team going into this year, I thought a big part of our group last year, too. It’s kind of just been a good transition into this year.”