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College men's hockey: Pandemic pushes Bulldogs' three-peat back to 2020-21

But chances are UMD's attempt will look nothing like the one in 2019-20 as players graduate, depart for NHL

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Minnesota Duluth goaltender Hunter Shepard celebrates with the national championship trophy after defeating Massachusetts 3-0 the NCAA Championship at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y. Shepard finishes his college career a perfect 8-0 in NCAA tournament games with back-to-back national championships. Because of COVID-19, he won't get a chance to extend that record to 12-0. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com

Around noon Thursday, Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin had to inform his team it would not get a chance to defend its NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship.

The league tournament had been canceled — including this weekend’s quarterfinal series against Miami at Amsoil Arena — and his seniors had played their final hockey games in Duluth the weekend before without even knowing it.

But what about the ultimate prize, the only thing many of his players admitted they really cared about this season: a third-straight national championship?

“I’m not clinging to a lot of hope we’re going to continue on with the NCAA tournament,” Sandelin said.

Like much of the last six seasons, the instincts of the three-time national championship coach were dead on. A little over three hours after the NCHC canceled its postseason tournament, the NCAA called off its remaining winter and spring championships due to the ongoing public health threat posed by the coronavirus spreading throughout the U.S., COVID-19.

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Because of a pandemic — and not because any of the other 59 NCAA Division I teams were able to dethrone them — the Bulldogs will not be heading to their sixth-consecutive NCAA regional; they will not take part in their fourth-consecutive Frozen Four; nor play in a fourth-straight NCAA championship game. UMD will not get to three-peat as national champions, at least in 2019-20.

It was the culmination of a dark 24 hours that began with restricted attendance at NCAA and NCHC tournament events and ended with no March Madness in any sport.

While not available to the media on Thursday following the day’s news, a couple Bulldogs still took to Twitter and found a couple rays of sunshine on a gloomy, rainy day.

“And again…. DEFENDING NATIONAL CHAMPS #dogs” tweeted UMD senior defenseman Jarod Hilderman.

“Still defending National Champions, 3 years running” tweeted UMD junior defenseman Louie Roehl.

There is truth in the tweets of Hilderman and Roehl. UMD will get another crack in 2020-21 at three-peating as national champions, attempting to join the 1952-53 Michigan Wolverines as the only school to do so.

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But the 2020-21 Bulldogs will likely look incredibly different than 2019-20 Bulldogs.

Hilderman is one of four seniors this season along with center Jade Miller, defenseman Nick Wolff and goaltender Hunter Shepard.

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Minnesota Duluth senior defenseman Nick Wolff checks Minnesota's Nathan Burke (21) in the crease on Oct. 26, 2019 at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Wolff has played in three Frozen Fours and three national championship games in his career. The shot at a fourth Frozen Four and NCAA title game appearance ended Thursday when the NCAA canceled the men's hockey tournament, including the Frozen Four. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Wolff, a co-captain with Shepard, was attempting to play in his fourth Frozen Four and fourth national championship game in four seasons.

Shepard, the backup goalie during the 2016-17 national championship loss to Denver in Chicago, was looking to build on his 8-0 NCAA tournament record that includes a .954 save percentage and 0.97 goals against average. He’s given up just one goal in two NCAA championship games — a 2-1 win over Notre Dame in 2018 in St. Paul and a 3-0 shutout of Massachusetts in 2019 in Buffalo, New York.

Having never won a state championship in youth hockey or juniors, or even played in the state tournament in high school at Grand Rapids, Shepard said that first title in 2018 will always be the most special.

“The second one is obviously really special, but it’s kind of like if you haven’t made it to the NCAA tournament before,” Shepard said Wednesday in the leadup to the postseason. “It’s an experience when a lot of things are unknown. It’s like when you drive somewhere for the first time. It seems like the drive is really long because you haven’t been there before and the way back seems short. That’s what it kind of feels like.”

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In addition to the four seniors, the NHL will come calling for a number of others who last year turned down contract offers for a chance to three-peat as national champions. It’s unlikely they will be able to reject those opportunities again.

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Minnesota-Duluth junior defenseman Scott Perunovich (7) high-fives teammates after scoring in the third period against North Dakota on Jan. 25 at Amsoil Arena. Perunovich, a three-time All-NCHC first-team selection, nationally finished second among defenseman and tied for 10th among all skaters in scoring with 40 points in 34 games this year. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

The first two to receive calls — if they haven’t already — will likely be junior defensemen Scott Perunovich and Dylan Samberg. Both are second-round draft picks with Samberg, the 21-year-old Hermantown native, going to the Winnipeg Jets in 2017, and Perunovich, the Hibbing native who turns 22 in April, being taken by the St. Louis Blues in 2018.

Because he was drafted as a 20-year-old, Perunovich could become a free agent after this season, putting pressure on the Blues to get him signed. Plenty of other teams would love to get another chance at acquiring the NCHC Player of the Year and Hobey Baker Memorial Award candidate, who nationally finished second among defenseman and tied for 10th among all skaters in scoring with 40 points in 34 games.

The Jets face similar pressure with Samberg, who could become a free agent next spring if he returns for his senior season. The same for junior wing Nick Swaney, a seventh-round pick of the Minnesota Wild in 2017. He might be presented with an NHL contract, as could 21-year-old sophomore forwards Cole Koepke — a Hermantown who went in the sixth round in 2018 to the Tampa Bay Lightning — and Noah Cates — a 2017 fifth-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers — after the seasons they’ve had, not to mention junior center Justin Richards, an undrafted free agent who received interest last summer from NHL teams.

Koepke led UMD with 16 goals in 34 games this season while Cates and Richards tied for second with 14.

The 2019-20 Bulldogs, who finish their season with a 22-10-2 record, were favored to join Michigan in the elite three-peat club because of all the talent they brought back from the 2017-18 championship squad and the 2018-19 champs, as well.

That likely won’t be the case next season with a completely new-look. Of course, it was a “rebuild” in 2017-18 that led to the start of back-to-back national championships.

“A lot of teams hoped to win a national championship this year. And my heart goes out to everyone involved. Especially all of the seniors whose seasons were halted,” Hilderman tweeted. “That being said, the boys had a chance to make history and go 3 in a row this year and that sucks the most.”

Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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