Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin liked the position his team had put itself in this season to make a sixth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance after it rattled off six-straight wins between Jan. 23 and Feb. 6.
But after three straight losses to Western Michigan and Colorado College, Sandelin said his program has put itself in a “tough spot” heading into the final two games of the regular season, with the first of those two happening at 7:07 p.m. Saturday at Amsoil Arena against St. Cloud State. The Bulldogs and Huskies will then meet again at 1:07 p.m. on March 6 in St. Cloud.
Thankfully for Sandelin, he has a senior class that’s been there, done that, and prepared to lead the team through these important moments. UMD’s seniors have seen it all in their four years, from thinking they had played themselves out of an NCAA tournament berth to winning back-to-back national championships.
“Those are the guys that have been through it and those are the guys that we've had to lean on during the year, and will continue to lead on because they have that experience,” Sandelin said. “They know what it takes to win. They know what getting to those points is all about. We’re at a crucial time of the year and those are the guys you have to rely on.”
With the Pairwise rankings essentially being useless during a season in which COVID-19 has wiped out interconference play, the question of who is in and who is on the bubble for the NCAA tournament is up for constant debate.
The Bulldogs enter the final two weeks of the regular season third in the NCHC at 12-8-2 this season. Both national polls — whose voters are not the NCAA championship committee, but coaches and media members — have the Bulldogs ranked 10th in the nation.
Is that good enough to make the NCAA tournament? It depends on who you ask.
“I think every game from here on out is kind of a win or you’re done kind of situation,” said Bulldogs senior wing Koby Bender. “We have to start playing with that mentality. If we start doing that, we’re going to be good.”
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Bender is one of the 10 freshmen the Bulldogs brought in during the memorable 2017-18 season, when UMD thought it had been eliminated from NCAA tournament consideration after losing twice at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, only to squeak into the field by .0001 of a percentage point and win the national championship in St. Paul.
Then those 10 freshmen did it again — minus the .0001 dramatics — in 2018-19 in Buffalo, New York.
Of those 10 freshmen, five are now seniors — goaltender Ben Patt redshirted as a freshman — and possibly playing their final game at Amsoil Arena on Saturday with the entirety of the NCHC postseason taking place in Grand Forks, North Dakota, next month as a single-elimination tournament.
Mikey Anderson, Dylan Samberg, Scott Perunovich and Justin Richards all left school early to sign NHL contracts, while Bender, Nick Swaney, Kobe Roth, Louie Roehl and Matt Anderson have stuck around for all four years.
That group has led the Bulldogs to a 88-45-9 record the last four years. In addition to two NCAA tournament appearances, two NCAA regional titles and two NCAA national championships, they also have the 2019 NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship and the 2017 Ledyard Bank Classic at Dartmouth on their resumes as well.
“They've been a very integral part of our success since they got here,” Sandelin said. “It's been fun to see some of them grow into better players. They play Bulldog hockey. They're all great kids too.”
The last two seasons for those class have been overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, costing them a chance to repeat as NCHC postseason champions and three-peat as national champions last spring. Then this season started two months late and in a Pod in Omaha, Nebraska.
The most fans these Bulldogs seniors have played in front of over the last year was the 250 present last Thursday in the loss to Colorado College, and that’s all they’ll have Saturday for Senior Night as well.
Don’t expect this class to get riled up at all about the raw deal they’ve been dealt as student-athletes the past 12 months, however, as this class doesn’t tend to get riled up over anything.
After enduring the emotional rollercoaster that was the 2017-18 season, Matt Anderson said he and his classmates found the cool, calm and collected approach better suited them during their 2018-19 national championship run, even if that mentality annoyed and frustrated their coach at times.
And that’s how they’ve again tackled this three-game losing streak, with deep breaths, Anderson said.
“We all know how we have to play and it's just a matter of doing that and just putting in the effort,” Anderson said. “We all know what to do. Sandy might get a little upset at us when we stay calm, but I think that sometimes that can help us or benefit us to not get overwhelmed and start doing too much.”
Saturday may not be the final game at Amsoil Arena for Anderson, Bender, Swaney, Roehl and Roth, or for senior graduate transfer Matt Cairns, who will also be honored this weekend. Because of the havoc the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked on this season, every student-athlete this year has been granted an extra season of eligibility.
While talks about their futures have taken place — if players graduate, they’ll need to enroll in a graduate program like Cairns has to keep playing — Sandelin said he’s giving all six until after the season to make a decision about 2020-21.
“It's tough to always see those guys become seniors, but who knows with the eligibility thing. Maybe you'll see some of them back,” Sandelin said.
“I'm still hopeful we can make it work out if some of these guys do want to come back because they've been such a valuable part of our program. Certainly, they're probably better than any freshman you can bring in just because of their experience.”
Follow, Watch, Listen
St. Cloud State at Minnesota Duluth
7:07 p.m. Saturday
At Amsoil Arena in Duluth
Live stats: Updates from UMD Sports Information
Online streaming: CBS Sports Network
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: KDAL 610 AM/103.9 FM