Back on the ice for NCHC play after spending over a week in quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 test result within the program, Minnesota Duluth took out Western Michigan 5-1 before 150 masked, socially distanced invited guests Saturday at Amsoil Arena.
The Bulldogs ran away from the Broncos — who are back at Amsoil Arena again at 4:07 p.m. Sunday — via a third-period hat trick by junior center Jackson Cates. The first hat trick by a Bulldog since Nick Swaney’s on Jan. 25, 2019, Cates’ three goals were scored in a span of less than eight minutes Saturday, with the first coming two minutes after Western had pulled within a goal.
“That’s a good, good win for us. We needed to get back on track,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin, whose team had just one win in its previous seven games (1-5-1). “It was a really good third period after they made it 2-1. Jackson’s line had a big night for us. It’s great to see because he’s one of our offensive guys and maybe hasn’t found the back of the net as much as he wants to.”
Cates, now with seven goals on the season, finished Saturday night with four points, as he also picked up an assist in the first period when senior wings Nick Swaney and Kobe Roth scored to put UMD ahead 2-0 heading into the second.
Senior wing Koby Bender also had a four-point night via four assists. He had a helper in the first period, and then set up all three of Cates’ goals in the third.
“We started skating together for the first time in my three years here and its been a lot of fun to play with him,” Cates said of Bender. “He’s a great player and he made a lot of good plays to me. Luckily I was able to bury them.”
The Bulldogs are one of three NCHC programs, along with Nebraska-Omaha and Denver, that had to push pause this month and go into quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 test result. All three teams have won their first game back. Denver and Omaha went a combined 3-1 in their first weekend of play after quarantining.
UMD wasn’t just trying to put a pandemic pause behind them, however. The Bulldogs were swept in their two games prior to quarantine, losing 4-3 and, in overtime, 1-0 to St. Cloud State on Jan. 8-9 at Amsoil Arena.
The Bulldogs hoped to get redemption the next weekend at Miami — that series was postponed to Jan. 29-30 — but instead had to wait an extra 15 days, as even the start of this weekend’s series with Western was delayed by a day.
“Whenever you have a weekend off that’s uncalled for, it stews in there after a couple of losses,” Bender said. “We did a good job of staying in shape and staying in the right mentality to get back at it this weekend. We had a good week of practice and that translated over to the game tonight.”
Thumbs up to Sandelin’s tinkering
Coming out of quarantine, Sandelin made a number of changes to his lineup.
On the power play — in hopes of creating better balance — he spread out his scorers instead of piling them together on the first unit, which is how UMD started the season.
The new-look first unit consisted of Swaney, freshman defenseman Wyatt Kaiser, junior center Jesse Jacques, sophomore wing Quinn Olson and junior center/wing Noah Cates. That’s the group that scored in the first to give UMD a 1-0 lead.
The second unit included Jackson Cates, Roth, Bender, junior wing Cole Koepke and senior defenseman Matt Anderson. While that unit didn’t score, they created the momentum that led to Jackson Cates’ first two goals Saturday.
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Sandelin said it’s just one game, but he likes what he sees.
“We got to find some balance and maybe those power plays create some competition amongst each other,” Sandelin said.
Of course the move that paid the most dividends for Sandelin on Saturday was putting Roth, Jackson Cates and Bender together. Listed third on the line chart, Sandelin said they were the team’s best line since returning to practice from quarantine on Wednesday.
“I thought they had a lot of jump,” Sandelin said. “It was the best Jackson has looked. He came back from that pause and was in a different gear and it showed tonight with all three of those guys.”
Thumbs down to fake crowd noise
Among the 150 invited guests Saturday at Amsoil Arena were family and friends of both the Bulldogs and Broncos. A few suite holders were also allowed inside, as were 20 UMD students for the first time since March 7, 2020.
“It was a lot of fun,” Jackson Cates said of fans being back. “My parents are able to come so it's nice to be nice to be able to see them again. It definitely gives a little more energy.”
It was only 150 people — double what was allowed the week before for the Bulldogs women’s hockey series against Ohio State — but there was a noticeable buzz in the concourse around 10 minutes prior to puck drop.
That buzz was drowned out during the game, however, by the fake crowd noise that had been piped in when the attendance was zero. The in-game murmuring and delayed reactions weren’t used the week before when Bulldogs and Buckeyes fans exchanged cheers inside Amsoil Arena.
It’s time for the fan track to retire.
Matt’s Three Stars
3. UMD senior wing Kobe Roth — Roth scored on a give-and-go with Bender to put UMD up 2-0. He then assisted on Jackson Cates’ first goal for a two-point night.
2. UMD senior wing Koby Bender — The four points and four assists were both career-highs for Bender.
1. UMD junior center Jackson Cates — The three goals and four points were also career-highs for Jackson Cates, who said his last hat trick came with the Waterloo Blackhawks of the USHL.
Western Michigan 0-0-1—1
Minnesota Duluth 2-0-3—5
Saves — Alex Aslanidis, WMU, 10-13-8—31; Ryan Fanti, UMD, 6-8-3—17.
Power plays — UMD 1-7; WMU 0-3. Penalties — UMD 4-8; WMU 9-26.