By Matt Wellens
DULUTH, Minn. — It’s out there.
Everyone has been talking about it since that final horn sounded after the dominating 3-0 NCAA championship win over Massachusetts at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
They’ll continue talking about it, right up and through this year’s NCAA Frozen Four at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
So why hide from the nine-letter, hyphenated word?
That’s what the University of Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team is chasing this season after winning back-to-back national championships the last two seasons in Buffalo, N.Y., and St. Paul, Minn. The 2019-20 Bulldogs are the eighth NCAA Division I team to embark on a three-peat attempt, with the 1952-53 Michigan Wolverines being the lone school to complete the quest … 66 years ago.
Instead of ducking and dodging questions about three-peating, the Bulldogs are embracing what’s before them, starting with head coach Scott Sandelin.
“It’s OK to think about it. We can’t run and hide from it. It’s pretty cool, actually,” Sandelin said back in September during NCHC Media Day, when he answered just as many questions about interviewing with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks as he did about three-peating. “Every team goes in wanting to win the last game of the year. That’s the goal of every team. We’ve been fortunate to do it twice. Why not think we can do it again? If they’re not thinking that way, we’re not setting our goals high enough.”
Michigan won six of the first nine NCAA men’s ice hockey championships, including three in a row from 1951 to 1953. They almost three-peated again between 1955 and 1957, but lost to Colorado College in the ‘57 NCAA championship game.
And no school has come that close since.
A three-peat has eluded Denver three times now after going back-to-back in 1960-61, 1968-69 and 2004-05. The Pioneers missed the NCAA tournament in 1962, 1970 and 2006.
Boston University also failed to make the NCAA tournament during its quest to three-peat in 1972-73 under coach Leon Abbott, who after replacing Jack Kelley in 1972 — Kelly took a pro job after winning back-to-back titles in 1971 and 1972 — was fired midway through the 1973-74 season and replaced by Jack Parker.
Minnesota followed its back-to-back titles in 2002 and 2003 by winning 27 games in 2003-04. The Gophers won the WCHA Final Five to earn a No. 1 seed, only to fall a game short of the Frozen Four after a 3-1 loss to the Bulldogs in the Midwest Regional final.
Now it’s the Bulldogs’ turn to make even more history. The program is chasing its fourth NCAA title of the decade. It’s coach is on the cusp of becoming just the fourth to ever win four or more NCAA Div. I men’s titles.
Of course neither of those accomplishments has the same ring to it as …
“I’m not going to run from it. Whatever, it’s out there. You got to embrace it,” Sandelin said. “I mean, it’s something that hasn’t happened in 50 years, at least, right?
“I think our guys are excited about that. They know how much work it is to get back there and how hard it is doing it.”
‘The Boys are Back’
Early in Saturday’s exhibition against Alberta, the DJ at Amsoil Arena played Dropkick Murphy’s “The Boys are Back” during a break in the action.
It was an appropriate tune on so many levels.
Not only was the Bulldogs men’s hockey team back playing a game — though one that didn’t count — on Duluth ice for the first time in over six months, but 20 of last year’s 27-member NCAA championship team were back in a UMD jersey.
Of those 20, 13 of them were also part of the 2017-18 championship squad — most notably goaltender Hunter Shepard.
One of four Bulldog seniors who have been on the roster for the program’s three-straight appearances in the NCAA championship game, the Cohasset, Minn., native has started a school-record 81 consecutive games over the last two seasons, posting a .926 save percentage and 1.79 goals against average in that span. He has a school-record 15 career shutouts. In the NCAA tournament, he’s 8-0 with a .954 save percentage and 0.97 GAA.
Coming off a season in which he was named NCHC Goaltender of the Year, an All-American and one of three finalists for the Mike Richter Award as national goaltender of the year, Shepard said he never contemplated leaving after his junior year to turn pro. He didn’t field any offers from NHL teams. He didn’t attend any NHL prospect development camps over the summer after taking part in two the summer before.
“Why would I want to leave what we have going on right now?” said Shepard, who will serve as a co-captain this season alongside senior defenseman Nick Wolff. “As soon as we won (in Buffalo), Sandy gave me a hug in the handshake line. We were like, ‘Well, we might as well try and do it again one more time, right?’ I pretty much told the guys, ‘I’m not leaving.’ I told them that straight-up I wasn’t leaving.”
Sandelin credits Shepard’s commitment to the program for the lack of changeover on the roster this offseason.
UMD lost two draft picks early to the NHL. Riley Tufte, a forward who would have been a senior, signed with the Dallas Stars and Mikey Anderson, a defenseman who would have been a junior, signed with the Los Angeles Kings.
“They know what he means to our team and what he’s done,” Sandelin said of Shepard last month. “If he goes, maybe it’s not so rosy right now with guys coming back.”
While UMD has lost four of its top 12 forward in each of the last two seasons, the blueline has remained as familiar as the man in goal, though some changes are coming.
Senior Jarod Hilderman and sophomore Jake Rosenbaum will battle to see who replaces Mikey Anderson, the Bulldogs lone loss over the past two years from its top-six defenseman.
Sandelin is also juggling the pairings to begin the season. Saturday against Alberta, Wolff started with junior Louie Roehl, junior second-round NHL picks Dylan Samberg (Winnipeg Jets) and Scott Perunovich (St. Louis Blue) were together, and junior Matt Anderson rotated opposite Hilderman and Rosenbaum.
“We’re just trying different things,” Sandelin said Saturday. “You may seem some changes. Who knows. The beauty is a lot of those guys can play together.”
Of the 50 voters in this year’s USCHO.com preseason poll, just one failed to rank the two-time defending national champions No. 1 a week ago.
It was longtime North Dakota beat writer Brad Elliott Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald,who revealed in his preseason top 20 last weekthat he was the one who voted Minnesota State-Mankato No. 1. He had the Bulldogs at No. 5.
“Do they have enough offense to win their first regular-season conference championship since 1993?”Schlossman wrote last week.“That’s the only question the Bulldogs need to answer.”
Schlossman isn’t the only one to bring up the Bulldogs scoring this fall. Sandelin mentioned it himself during NCHC Media Day last month.
“We’re not probably going to be a super high scoring team,” Sandelin said.
Junior wing Nick Swaney is the Bulldogs’ top returning goal scorer after netting 15 a year ago. He’s one of five on the UMD roster to have scored double-digit goals in his college career. Swaney has 21.
Wolff and Perunovich each have 14 goals as Bulldogs after combining for eight last year while Richards and junior wing Kobe Roth each have 12, with all 12 of Richards’ goals coming a year ago. Roth had eight last season.
UMD will once again look for someone to take a jump in goal scoring, like Tufte did in 2017-18 going from nine goals as a freshmen to 16 as a sophomore. Parker Mackay made the same jump in 2018-19 to lead the team in goals like Tufte did.
The Bulldogs will also have to rely on the “scoring by committee” approach as they did during the two previous championship runs. While the phrase “scoring by committee” often means a team struggles to score, UMD has proved otherwise the previous two seasons.
“We really have four lines that could be a first line anywhere,” said Richards, who was named an assistant captain last week. “Our fourth line is not really a fourth line. Other teams that we played, like UMass, they really had two strong lines, and then their bottom six wasn’t really that great. They would try matching those lines up and our bottom six would just dominate them. I saw that a lot, especially, in the tournament.”
The Bulldogs finished tied for 10th in the nation last season in scoring offense, averaging 3.17 goals-per-game. They were 23rd the season before that, averaging three per game.
Combine that offensive output with a scoring defense that limited opponents to 1.88 gpg in 2018-19 (good for third nationally) and 2.09 gpg in 2017-18 (good for fourth nationally), you get a team that finished sixth in scoring margin last season at 1.29 gpg and eighth two seasons ago at 0.91 gpg.
Three years ago, UMD had a 50-point scorer in All-American senior wing Alex Iafallo. He led the team in in goals with 21 and had three 30-plus point players behind him in Neal Pionk, Joey Anderson and Adam Johnson.
Despite all those offensive threats, the 2016-17 Bulldogs finished where the last two Bulldogs teams finished statistically — 10th nationally in scoring offense at 3.33 gpg, eighth in scoring defense at 2.26 and fifth in scoring margin at 1.07.
“As much as you’d like to have the one or two guys that are the dominant 50-60 point guys, I’d rather have four lines that are very formidable, that can score,” Sandelin said. “Hey, if you get a bunch of guys scoring 10 goals, that’s going to help your team. It creates some balance and it creates some decisions for other teams. We did that last year against some teams. From Friday to Saturday, teams change their their lineup to try and match our depth. Hopefully, we can continue to do that and get the same results.”
Been there, done that
While “three-peat” may have just entered the discussion surrounding the Bulldogs six months ago, talk of a national championship is nothing new for the Bulldogs. Senior center Jade Miller said that’s existed ever since he stepped on campus in the fall of 2016.
That’s why “three-peat” doesn’t scare him or his teammates. At UMD, anything short of a national championship is a failure, Miller said.
“It’s no different than people talking about going back-to-back and we were able to handle that handle that pretty well,” Miller said. “We’ll be in a similar manner here with the character guys that we have. We’re not going to really let the noise affect our ultimate goal at the end of the day. We’re just trying to win another national championship and that’s what you do at a program like this.”