For Scott Sandelin, his 20th season at Minnesota Duluth continues to lack closure.
Because of social distancing guidelines due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the coach has yet to hold a final face-to-face meeting with his players. Their final gathering early last week to put the wraps on the 2019-20 season was turned into a conference call.
“It was pretty emotional,” Sandelin said. “It was a tough call. It’s tough not to be able to be face-to-face with your team and talk to your players, talk to your seniors and guys that are maybe leaving. It’s hard. There is zero closure to the year. Hopefully, if this settles down, we can get them all back and get some closure this summer.”
A three-time national championship coach, Sandelin admits, “I don’t think I ever know,” when he’s got an NCAA title team or not. That’s still true now after his defending back-to-back NCAA champion Bulldogs saw their quest for a three-peat halted not by any of the other 59 NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey programs, but by a coronavirus that has infected over 15,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands more across the globe.
UMD (22-10-2 overall, 17-5-2 NCHC) finished the regular season strong, going 10-2 over its last 12 games after a costly pair of losses at St. Cloud State in mid-January that likely deprived the program of its first NCHC regular season title. The Bulldogs finished second to North Dakota in the league standings by just three points.
While the Fighting Hawks captured the Penrose Cup, the Bulldogs were in a strong position to win a second-consecutive NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship and make that run at a third-straight NCAA title, winning nine of their last 10 games. UMD — with the sixth-best winning percentage in the nation and a No. 4 ranking in the Pairwise — was one of just seven teams to finish the season on a winning streak of three or more games. The five-game run that included victories over Western Michigan, Colorado College and St. Cloud State was second to Cornell’s nine-straight victories.
Despite heading into the postseason with a full head of steam, the best answer Sandelin said he could give about whether the 2019-20 Bulldogs were a national championship team was, “Maybe.” The coach did admit that, with 19 players in the lineup back from last year’s squad that won both NCHC and NCAA postseason title, 13 back from the first title team in 2017-18 and four seniors who have been to three Frozen Fours, UMD’s victorious postseason experience likely gave it an edge over the rest of the field.
“They love this time of year. They were a much better team in the second half, especially toward the end. They were prepared and ready for this time of the year,” Sandelin said. “We had better scoring from different guys. Our play was more consistent. We were getting there.”
UMD didn’t always look like a national championship squad in 2019-20, though neither did the last two national championship teams.
This year’s Bulldogs started the season with questions about scoring. Their depth was tested — at forward and defense — so much the team went looking for free agent pick-ups during the holiday break, resulting in the addition of freshman forward Ben Almquist. They lost two key players — freshman defenseman Hunter Lellig at the start and sophomore center Jackson Cates in late February — to what proved to be season-ending injuries.
By the time the season was canceled, however, UMD had overcome those obstacles.
After playing much of the first half with a five-man rotation on the blue line — and sometimes with just four regulars if a defenseman was injured — senior Jarod Hilderman emerged as a reliable sixth defenseman in 2019-20 after playing just 24 games his previous two seasons.
Meanwhile the Bulldogs were able to overcome the loss of Jackson Cates — eight goals and 15 assists in 29 games — by getting goals late in the season from junior wing Koby Bender and freshman wing Luke Loheit. With just five goals between them in the first 31 games of the season, Bender scored three goals in the regular season finales against St. Cloud State while Loheit netted two in his last three games.
Bender’s goals came after he hopped alongside senior center Jade Miller and junior wing Kobe Roth on what had become a productive third line in the second half. Loheit, meanwhile, was scoring on the fourth line, getting assists from Almquist and sophomore center Jesse Jacques.
In the final weeks, UMD had finally developed a fourth line similar to what it had in its previous two title runs with Roth, Miller and Billy Exell.
“The forward group was probably the most challenging, trying to get those guys to understand what role they need to play, how they need to play and be consistent with that,” Sandelin said. “Sometimes that takes time.
“If you looked at the last 2-3 weekends, I really liked the fact that a lot of different guys were scoring. That was good.”
Minus the two losses in January at St. Cloud State — when the team mustered just a single goal — offense proved to be the least of the Bulldogs’ worries in 2019-20, especially after it started getting points from up and down the lineup.
In a shortened season that saw just one player in the entire country — Providence sophomore forward Jack Dugan — register 50-or-more points, UMD junior defenseman Scott Perunovich of Hibbing led UMD in scoring as one of 11 players to register 40 or more points. One of three finalists for NCHC Player of the Year and a top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, Perunovich recorded six goals and 34 assists to finish tied for 10th nationally in scoring and second nationally among defensemen.
Perunovich was second in the nation among all skaters in assists, thanks in part to having a large stable of goal scorers to work with. UMD — which also got 30 combined assists from defensemen Dylan Samberg and Nick Wolff — had five players finish with 10 or more goals. Had the season reached its climax, the team might have finished with as many as seven (eight if Jackson Cates came back).
Sophomore wing Cole Koepke of Hermantown led the way with 16 goals. Sophomore wing-turned-center Noah Cates and junior center Justin Richards each had 14. Roth finished with 13 and junior wing Nick Swaney had 12.
The Bulldogs finished the season as a top-10 scoring team averaging 3.35 goals per game, boosted early by a power play that finished the season ninth in the country at 25.4 percent and strengthened late by averaging three even-strength goals per night over the final 12 games.
Combine that offensive output with a strong blue line that helped limit teams to 2.26 goals per games (12th nationally) and a senior goaltender in Hunter Shepard who boasts a career .954 save percentage, 0.97 goals against average and perfect 8-0 record in the NCAA tournament, Sandelin said he felt good with where the program was at going into a best-of-three NCHC quarterfinal series against Miami that was canceled 31 hours from puck drop.
UMD had a chance to make another run, he said.
“They know how to win, they were ready for this time of the year,” Sandelin said.
“Our guys were really looking forward to the second half of the year and more so the end of the year and the playoffs. It’s really devastating to see it taken away because this group was really looking forward to it. They were confident in each other and felt they could do well in the postseason.”