By Matt Wellens
DULUTH, Minn. — The national Rookie of the Year as a freshman in 2017-18, Minnesota Duluth’s Scott Perunovich built a reputation on the ice as a speedy defenseman who could skate never-ending circles around the opposition.
The two-time All-American has settled down since then and in the process, is riling up crowds as a patient puck handler who is willing to wait out opponents behind his own net. The junior from Hibbing, Minn., was not popular last on Nov. 16 at Miami’s Goggin Ice Center.
“I was behind the net for a really long time and I threw the puck up to someone and it got deflected,” Perunovich said, talking about the new enemies he made a week ago in Oxford, Ohio. “It got all the way back to me and I went straight behind the net again. The fans were booing me pretty hard.”
Just as he did his freshman season, Perunovich is once again leading the ninth-ranked Bulldogs in scoring from the blue line, but he’s doing it in a much different fashion. In his words, he’s using his mind rather than his skates to average more than a point-per-game going into a pair of 7:07 p.m. NCHC contests against Colorado College on Friday and Saturday at Amsoil Arena.
Perunovich’s 13 points through 10 games has the 2017 second-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues tied for fourth in the NCHC in scoring. His 11 assists put him in the top 10 nationally.
Seven of his assists have come in the first four games of conference play, including three last Saturday in the 3-2 victory at Miami.
“I’ve matured with the game,” Perunovich said. “I’ve realized if I give the puck to someone else and they have time, they’re going to make a play. I had three assists and I didn’t do much for really any of them. I’ve realized I don’t need to do as much. If I beat one guy, I can get someone else the puck and they can do the rest.”
That’s exactly what Perunovich did when two RedHawks came after him behind the net late in the third with UMD leading by a goal. Instead of trying to skate through both RedHawks like he would have as a freshman, Perunovich got by the first attacker and before the other could close in, he passed off to a teammate. UMD got the puck down ice and deep into the Miami zone.
“My freshman year I was trying to do it all myself,” Perunovich said.
Much of what Perunovich is doing this year on the ice is for his teammates, not himself, like those “breaks” behind the net. On rare occasions he is trying to burn some clock. Lately, he and defensive partner Nick Wolff have needed an occasional on-ice breather due the extra shifts they’re picking up with sophomore Hunter Lellig and junior Dylan Samberg both out with injuries.
More often than not, Perunovich is buying his teammates time so they can change, and then giving them even more time to set up the Bulldogs’ attack.
Wolff said Perunovich’s unselfishness has not gone unnoticed in the locker room this season, from the plays he makes on the ice to the credit he deflects to teammates.
“He has vision like no other players out here, probably the best in the NCAA,” Wolff said. “But at the same time, it’s a five-man unit. It’s not just him. That’s why he’s a humble guy. He’s not going to take the credit all for himself. He’s giving it to other guys and I respect him for that.”
Perunovich said he relied heavily on his teammates — especially Wolff in the corners — a year ago when he battled a back injury late in the season. That’s also when he had to start outsmarting opponents instead of just outskating them.
Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said that intelligence has always been there for Perunovich — a player with great anticipation and instincts; a player that can speed up the game or slow it down; a player that can create more time and space for teammates in the offensive zone.
“What makes him special is he has a great feel for the game,” Sandelin said. “He’s got great deception to his game. … He’s always had it. That’s something he is never going to lose. It’s a gift that he has and it certainly makes him an elite player.”