Freshmen play key role again for Minnesota Duluth’s Frozen Four push

Cole Koepke (17) of Minnesota Duluth controls the puck near Ryan Barrow (18) of Denver Friday during the NCHC semifinal game at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Clint Austin / The Rink Live

By Matt Wellens

DULUTH, Minn. — Minnesota Duluth is in the NCAA Frozen Four for the third consecutive spring, set to take on Providence at 4 p.m. Thursday, April 11, in the first of two semifinals at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

And for the third consecutive year, freshmen have played a major role in getting the Bulldogs to college hockey’s biggest stage.

UMD coach Scott Sandelin has suited up five freshmen every night throughout this season’s NCHC and NCAA tournaments a year after playing eight freshmen — including five at defense — en route to a national championship.

UMD played just four freshmen during the first of its three straight Frozen Four runs in 2016-17, though one of those rookies — goaltender Hunter Miska — was a finalist for the Mike Richter Award as national goaltender of the year.

Sandelin’s confidence over the years in his rookies comes from the confidence he has in his veteran leadership, starting with captains Dominic Toninato in 2016-17, Karson Kuhlman last season and this season with Parker Mackay. He expects those players to instill the program’s expectations from day one.

That includes third-string goaltender Andrew Dietrich, who joined the Bulldogs in December from UMD’s club team. He played at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul in the Minnesota Class AA state tournament as a junior with Eden Prairie.

“There are a lot of guys that have played in good junior programs or good high school programs. They’ve been fortunate to play in these games. But it’s a different level,” Sandelin said. “I’m going to give the credit to the guys in the locker room, our captains, that set the expectations.”

Sandelin said he doesn’t specifically recruit players with extensive postseason resumes, but it is a plus when the program lands a player who is playoff tested.

Dietrich is one of five Bulldogs rookies to have played in ‘The Tourney’ at Xcel in high school. Brothers Noah and Jackson Cates both went with Stillwater in Class AA while Hermantown’s Cole Koepke and Jesse Jacques went three times each in Class A.

Both Jacques and Koepke said their postseason experience with the Hawks has helped them calm their nerves the past few weeks.

Koepke, who with three goals and two assists is second in scoring to Mackay (3-3—6) on the Bulldogs’ postseason scoring chart, said the emotions he felt during the first game of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Xcel and the first game of the NCAA Midwest Regional in Allentown, Pa., were similar to what he felt during his first state tournament game.

“I think the success that I’ve had in the past in juniors and high school is really helping prepare for weekends like this, just how to deal with the nerves,” said Koepke, who registered a goal and an assist in his first state tournament game. “Obviously this is a whole other level, but I kind of have an idea how to deal with it. Then I just try and put (the nerves) behind me and play my best. I think that’s really helped me out.”

No freshman Bulldog has more postseason experience than Tanner Laderoute, the Edmonton native, who played in 45 playoff games — all in best-of-seven series — over four junior seasons with the Sherwood Park Crusaders and Okotoks Oilers in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

Laderoute said the one-and-done nature of the NCAA tournament is a new, crazy experience for him. There is no room to take a night, or even a single shift, off at this level.

Despite the major difference, Laderoute said there is one thing that remains the same: It’s hard to keep your season alive and even harder to end someone else’s season. You have to take an opponent out when you have the chance, he said.

“That’s when they grind their teeth and they really come full at you,” Laderoute said of the postseason. “You just learn every year what it really takes to end their season and what it takes to keep your season going. It’s kind of like kill or be killed.”

Koepke and Laderoute have recorded crucial points for the Bulldogs this postseason.

Both of Laderoute’s postseason assists came in the 3-2 double overtime win over St. Cloud State in the Frozen Faceoff championship. He set up the game-tying and game-winning goals.

Koepke scored twice in the Bulldogs’ 3-0 Frozen Faceoff semifinal win over Denver, and in the regional semifinals he assisted on both of the Bulldogs’ goals in a 2-1 overtime win over Bowling Green.

The leadership and advice passed down from those Bulldogs who’ve made Frozen Four runs in the past also helped, Koepke said.

“Everyone on the team has played in at least one (Frozen Four) and then tons of guys have played in multiple,” Koepke said. “They’re great help, they tell us what to expect and tell us that every team is just going to come out flying. This is the time of the year where team seasons are ending and everyone’s going to give you their best game to try and keep their season alive. Everyone has been a great help mentoring us younger guys with what to expect.”

NCAA Frozen Four

At KeyBank Center, Buffalo, N.Y.

Thursday’s Semifinals

  • Providence (24-11-6) vs. Minnesota Duluth (27-11-2), 4 p.m. (ESPN2)
  • Denver (24-11-5) vs. Massachusetts (30-9), 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Saturday’s Championship

  • Semifinal winners, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
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