By Matt Wellens
DULUTH, Minn. — Sophomore defenseman Scott Perunovich was sitting on the bench, resting up, during the second period of Minnesota Duluth’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship victory over St. Cloud State on Saturday, March 23, at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Then coach Scott Sandelin approached him.
“Sandy came over and asked if I was OK playing forward,” said Perunovich, a Hibbing native like his coach. “I said, ‘Yeah, if you need me there, I’ll do it.’ Then I heard him yell, ‘Billy, Kobe, Scott’s on the left.’ I moved over and the rest is history.”
Well, sort of.
“We were up next shift and Scotty thought we were up that shift,” UMD sophomore forward Kobe Roth said. “(Riley) Tufte changed and Scotty wasn’t supposed to go. Scotty jumped over the bench and I had to yell at him to get back on the bench.”
After avoiding what could have been a costly misstep with Roth and senior wing Billy Exell, Perunovich’s tenure at forward improved from there as he hopped on and off the ice from one forward line to the next as Sandelin shuffled his shorthanded deck from shift to shift.
The Bulldogs found themselves short a centerman starting in the second period of Saturday’s double-overtime win after junior Jade Miller was lost to injury. Freshman Jackson Cates was already out with an illness. To fill the void, Sandelin started moving wings — like Jackson’s younger brother, Noah — to center, but that left him searching for wings.
With freshman Hunter Lellig suited up as a seventh defenseman, Perunovich made the most sense to get bumped up. Eventually the two-time NCHC Offensive Defenseman of the Year returned to the blue line alongside junior defenseman Nick Wolff.
“We put some guys with some different players,” Sandelin said. “Scotty played some forward for us and I think that got him going a little bit, too. I think our whole team got going a little bit more after that.”
Perunovich began his hockey career playing forward in squirts and stayed there until his first year of pee wees. He moved to defenseman his second year of pee wees and didn’t return to forward until his season of junior hockey in 2016-17 with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the United States Hockey League. He was asked to play a pair of games there at forward.
At the college level, there’s a lot more skating for forwards than he thought. And that’s not a bad thing, the speedy St. Louis Blues prospect said.
“That caught me by surprise a little bit,” said Perunovich, drafted in the second round, 45th overall, in 2018. “Forechecking, backchecking, you’re going up and down the rink a lot more, going the full 200 feet. I had fun.”
Perunovich has been battling a lower-body injury this month. He missed the Bulldogs; game March 1 against Miami and then was scratched for the NCHC quarterfinal series sweep of Nebraska-Omaha at Amsoil Arena.
Perunovich said Tuesday after practice that he’s feeling good now going into the No. 1-seeded Bulldogs’ NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal against fourth-seeded Bowling Green at 3 p.m. Saturday in Allentown, Pa.
In addition to working with UMD’s athletic training staff, Perunovich has been putting in extra time with Jason Aldrich, the strength and conditioning coach for the UMD men’s and women’s hockey programs. Aldrich has been a great help, Perunovich said.
“We’ve gotten really close pretty quickly here, especially the last three weeks. He’s always in my corner,” Perunovich said. “He’s taking time out of his busy day and giving me some extra attention. He’s a great, personable guy. He’s a good friend and I’m glad he’s helping me.”
NO. 1 UMD (25-11-2) VS. NO. 4 BOWLING GREEN (25-10-5)
What: NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: PPL Center, Allentown, Pa.
Radio: KDAL-AM 610/KDAL-FM 103.9/WDSM-AM 710/WDSM-FM 98.1
Internet: espn.com/watch/ (video)/kdal610.aom (audio)