Frozen Four College Hockey Team Preview: Minnesota Duluth looking to make it three straight national championships with depth, experience

Minnesota Duluth players bask in the glory of a goal during NCHC pod play in December (photo: Mark Kuhlmann).

This is the fourth of four team previews for teams playing in the Frozen Four this week in Pittsburgh.


Season record: 14-10-2

How they got to Pittsburgh: Defeated North Dakota in Northwest regional, 3-2 in five overtimes

Top players: Senior forward Nick Swaney (13-14-27), junior forward Jackson Cates (11-16-27), senior forward Kobe Roth (13-10-23), junior forward Cole Koepke (14-8-22)

Top goalies: Zach Stejskal (8-4-3, 1.75 GAA, .923 SV%, Ryan Fanti (11-7-2, 2.35 GAA, .907 SV%)

Why they will win the national championship: They’ve won the last two national championships, so why not a three-peat?

They have players who are experienced under the pressure, and the last time they played UMass in the Frozen Four was in the 2019 national championship in which they completely shut down the Minutemen offense.

Why they won’t win the national championship: It just gets harder and harder to repeat. Teams are going to play extra tough to try to take down the champ. Also, unlike in past years the Bulldogs have shown themselves to be vulnerable to late tying goals. You can only go to the overtime well so many times before it comes back to bite you.

Asked about a fourth straight appearance in the Frozen Four (and a possible third-straight national championship) and the players for Minnesota Duluth acknowledge both that it’s unusual and special.

“It’s kind of crazy; it’s supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it seems that we just get to keep doing it,” said junior forward Tanner Laderoute. “It kind of puts me at a speechless point that even the tournament itself, there’s 60 teams in Division I hockey, and there’s a lot that don’t even make the tournament, and we’ve built a culture where we would be upset if we didn’t make the tournament, and maybe even upset if we didn’t make the Frozen Four.”

“This has been a really difficult year for everybody, and to have the opportunity to go back there, like I said you never take these opportunities for granted because you never know when they’re going to come again,” said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin. “It’s exciting again to get the opportunity to go back there, and I know our guys are looking forward to it.”

The Bulldogs advanced to the Frozen Four in unusual fashion. They didn’t play their first-round game, advancing via walkover when Michigan was forced to withdraw due to COVID protocols.

In the regional final, they faced NCHC foe North Dakota, which in addition to being the top seed in the tournament was sort of playing at home, as the regional was held in Fargo, North Dakota. The Bulldogs built a 2-0 lead early in the third period on goals by Jackson Cates and Cole Koepke just 1:20 apart. They held that lead until the final minutes when North Dakota tied it on two goals in a 44-second span at 18:19 and 19:03.

UMD reset, and they thought they had it won when Kobe Roth scored on a two-on-one rush at 7:38 of the first overtime, but the goal was disallowed after an extensive review due to offsides. Playing on, the game was finally decided in the fifth overtime on a goal by freshman Luke Mylymok at 2:13 when he used a UND defender as a partial screen and beat goaltender Adam Scheel five-hole.

Asked about managing the emotions on the bench and keeping an even keel, Sandelin credited his upperclassmen.

“It’s something we’ve talked about a lot,” said Sandelin. “First of all, we have guys who have been through some of those types of games where things don’t always go your way, so I think number one, a lot of it had to do with our older guys being really calm and having a positive attitude. To get the goal disallowed was another situation, the emotions for both teams. We’re elated, they’re deflated, so for both teams to reset it’s not an easy thing. I called them in during the review and said it doesn’t matter what happens. It if goes our way, we can continue to celebrate, if not we’ve got to play, and our guys did a good job with that.

“Those are tough situations.”

Koepke acknowledged that as the game kept going on, players on the bench naturally thought about Roth’s disallowed goal, as he was offsides by perhaps an inch.

“You kind of think about it maybe more during the intermissions when we’re sitting there like, this game it’s still going on,” said Koepke. “Everyone is so tired, and you just think, like you said, one inch and we would have been done. I mean like Tanner mentioned earlier, we have a next-play mentality, and you can’t control the past, you can only control our efforts moving forward. We always talk about having a short memory when things don’t go our way.”

UMD’s unique goaltending situation was also on full display. After the first few weeks of the pod in Omaha, Sandelin has essentially split goaltending duties between sophomore Ryan Fanti and freshman Zach Stejskal, who got the start against North Dakota. However, as the game wore on, Stejskal grew tired and started cramping, and he had to come out of the game in the fourth OT after making 57 saves, putting Fanti under an immediate pressure cooker, one he met head-on, making six saves in earning the win.

“‘States’ played unbelievable that whole North Dakota game, and ‘Fants’ came in and was dialed and ready to go when he had to be,” said Laderoute. “That’s all you can ask from a young guy. I know that it’s hard to stay in the game, especially when it starts to go third overtime, fourth overtime, but Fanti was ready every time he had his name called. You can tell when it starts getting that long, it’s tough on the goalies, they’re playing the whole game. Fants knew that it’s always a possibility.”

UMD’s upperclassmen are veterans at the Frozen Four. Koepke and Laderoute won against UMass in 2019 as freshmen, and senior Nick Swaney, the team’s leading scorer, won as a freshman against Notre Dame and then as a sophomore in 2019.

“It’s pretty tough to put into words,” said Swaney. “We’ve had three shots at it my career, my class, and we’ve got there every single year. It’s pretty special. This year with everything we’ve had to sacrifice and the ups and downs that we’ve had to go through, I think it makes it that much better.”

Koepke and Laderoute are now veterans looking out for the freshmen and sophomores and mentoring them on this road.

“I think it’s really fun to be back,” said Koepke. “It’s something that as a team that we work toward all year. Last time we were there we were freshmen and we really looked to the seniors and juniors that had been there before to kind of guide us and give us a little heads-up of what we might have to expect going forward. Knowing that for us, I think we’re just looking at our freshmen trying to help them as much as we can and try to give little hints and tips on what to expect there.”

Everyone associated with the program knows that the three-peat is something that a lot of people are talking about on social media, but the team is just trying to take it a game at a time and manage their emotions and expectations. They are expecting a fierce game against Massachusetts on Thursday.

“Obviously a really good team,” said Swaney. “Playing anyone in the NCAA tournament this point, everyone’s going to be a really good team. I think watching them, too, kind of their games in the past, they have some really good defensive players and they kind of play that similar style where they’ll get in on you hard and play fast all over the ice. It’s going to be a good game, and obviously looking forward to playing them again.”