This Week in NCHC Hockey: Minnesota Duluth reboots, looks to capture second place in NCHC with finale in St. Cloud

Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State will drop the puck this weekend in St. Cloud, Minn. (photo: Sara Guymon).

Entering last Saturday’s game against then-No. 6 St. Cloud State, Minnesota Duluth was in a slump.

Admittedly, the slump was only three games, but for the team that has won the last two national championships and played in three straight national championship games, it was cause for concern that the Bulldogs had lost three straight.

While a win wasn’t necessarily going to be a surprise, it’s likely that few expected the Bulldogs to roll to a 5-1 triumph over St. Cloud.

“We had a lot of time to think about the three games,” laughed Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin, referencing the nine-day break between their loss to Colorado College and the win over St. Cloud. “Obviously, our guys weren’t happy with the way the CC game ended to make it three. We got back to work. We had a good latter part of the week; our first part of the week was a little disjointed because we had some guys out. They were ready to play, and the big difference was we got a lead and built on it. Some other games, we haven’t scored.

“The three games we had opportunities to build on leads, but this time we did. I thought our guys had a really good start, and getting that first goal was really critical. Really good first period, and we made that hold up the rest of the game.”

Offensively, the Bulldogs were led by senior Nick Swaney, who scored two goals in less than three minutes midway through the first period as the Bulldogs built a 3-0 lead. After St. Cloud got one back on a power play in the second, Swaney completed the hat trick to put his team back up by three at 13:38 of the second.

“He’s had a really good year for us,” said Sandelin. “He’s been good from the start, he’s been consistent, he’s been a leader for us. He’s one of the vocal guys for our team. Last weekend against St. Cloud, he had a great game getting the hat trick. It kind of goes along with his year. It was nice to see him get rewarded with more than one or two goals.

“We need those guys. I talked to our upperclassmen during the week and said, you guys have been there and done that and been through some of these stretches, and you have to help pull us through. Those guys have been our leaders, and Nick’s at the top of that list. I know he’ll continue to lead us going forward.”

In goal in the game was rookie Zach Stejskal, who has been rotating in the second half with Ryan Fanti. Stejskal had previously held St. Cloud to a single goal in a 1-0 overtime loss in January. Last Saturday, he made 24 saves in the win.

“The only time we missed the rotation was when we went to Miami,” said Sandelin. “Zach had a lower-body injury and missed it. Pretty much it was his rotation. The games he’s played, he’s played well for us. The last time against St. Cloud, he didn’t give up a goal until the three-on-three OT. We’re in a good position with goaltending. The decision will be a little tougher moving forward, but I like where we’re at.”

Outside of the current season, the Bulldogs program was recognized after a fashion when former Bulldogs player and coach Mike Sertich was honored with the Hobey Baker Legend of College Hockey Award. Sertich earned 350 wins as coach of UMD, and Sandelin took over the reigns from Sertich after he resigned.

“Anytime you see a colleague and someone that’s an alumnus of our program get recognized with a prestigious award, certainly there’s not many people more deserving of it than him,” said Sandelin. “He’s given a lot back to the game. He was an integral part of building this program. I got to follow in his footsteps. We’re good friends, and we’ve always been good friends, and I have a lot of respect for Mike. He’s not just a hockey coach, he’s a good person. It’s a great honor for him, and anytime it’s someone associated with your program, you take great pride in that.”

One challenge all the NCHC teams have faced is familiarity with each other. Since the second half started in January, most of the teams have been in a rotation with three other teams where they’ve faced each other 4-6 times, rather than spreading out their play against all league opponents.

“I think we all know it’s been a crazy year; I thought the pod was outstanding because we were busy,” said Sandelin. “The second half, we haven’t seen a lot of opponents. It’s basically been three teams. We did have the pause there for 10 days where we missed the one weekend after we just got going. We came out of that pretty well. It feels like at times you can’t get a lot of rhythm going. It’s just been so different for guys. Everyone has had their own different struggles. Some have handled it well. I think our guys have handled it well. This is the time of year too in any year where the excitement ramps up because it’s the end of the year and the playoffs are coming.

“It’s kind of that second season for everybody. When you look at this year, it really is a second season with single-game elimination. Teams maybe have the opportunity to win the league tournament and continue to play.”

Sandelin then knocks on wood and says, “We’re thankful that we have 23 games, and are getting to 24. I think that’s an amazing accomplishment for all the teams that have been able to play. Right now, we have to win games. It’s like I told our guys: the sure way to get to the NCAA tournament is to win the league tournament.”

This Saturday, the Bulldogs face St. Cloud State in the season finale. The game will be extra intense after last weekend’s contest, as well as because second place in the league is on the line. Sandelin expects it to be a battle.”

“We’re going to need to bring extra; like I told our guys on Monday, don’t exhale,” said Sandelin. “The fun part about this game is that there’s some meaning. We’re both playing for seeding, and we both want to finish in second. You want to finish the year on a good note, so it’s not like this is a meaningless game. If we were already set with where we were going to finish, there would be meaning, but there’s more on the line. I think that’s great, because even the way the game ended there was emotion in the game and a little chippy stuff.

“I think it’s a great way to get ready for the playoffs, and to me it is a playoff game with second place on the line. It’ll be a fun game. We know what’s coming, and hopefully we can handle it and go in there and put together a good 60 minutes and get a win.”

COVID-19 and the NCHC

This weekend, Denver and Colorado College were supposed to play a home-and-home again for their final two games of the year. This series had twice been postponed in January because of positive COVID tests, once by Denver for the original series on Jan. 8-9 and once with CC for the reschedule on Jan. 29-30.

COVID hit four of the NCHC’s eight teams this season, with CC bearing the brunt of it. The Tigers had to postpone the start of their season in the NCHC pod because of positive COVID testing, had the Jan. 29-30 series canceled, and now have this weekend canceled.

Denver had the one weekend canceled Jan. 8-9 because of COVID. Omaha missed two weeks because of an outbreak in early January, and Minnesota Duluth had to postpone a series on Jan. 15-16 because of positive COVID tests.

Despite that, all but CC and Denver will have played their scheduled 24 games this season, a remarkable accomplishment. Because CC and Denver only played 22 games, the league will go with a points per game average to determine league standings, meaning Omaha finishes fourth, Denver fifth, Western Michigan sixth, CC seventh, and Miami eighth. North Dakota claimed the Penrose Cup as league champion, and Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud will play this Saturday to determine who finishes second and finishes third.