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UMD men's hockey: Bulldogs getting healthier, just in time for red-hot Denver

The Bulldogs plan to have four players back from injury and illness, including junior starting goaltender Ryan Fanti, who was the NCHC and national goaltender of the month for November. He missed the first series of December due to COVID-19 protocols.

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Minnesota Duluth goaltender Ryan Fanti (39) makes a save against Alaska during the first period on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Minnesota Duluth senior wing and captain Noah Cates was greeted by a very welcome sight this week when the Bulldogs returned to practice at Amsoil Arena in preparation for a home series with Denver.

The ice had become a bit more crowded as a surge of healthy bodies returned from injury and illness, and just in time for the 7:07 p.m. NCHC games on Friday and Saturday against the Pioneers. It’s UMD’s final series before a two-week holiday break.

“Definitely helps seeing guys get back,” Cates said. “They’re a little more well-rested, too, after having some time off, which kind of adds some jump to them and our lineup.”

Sophomore defenseman Wyatt Kaiser (illness), freshman defenseman Will Francis (illness), junior goaltender Ryan Fanti (illness) and junior wing Luke Loheit (injury) are all expected to be available this weekend after practicing this week.

Bulldogs deal with changing lineup, make no excuses Members of the UMD men's hockey team warm up before practice at Amsoil Arena in Duluth on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

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Fifth-year senior Louie Roehl was classified by coach Scott Sandelin as “day-to-day” this week after suffering an injury late in last Friday’s game at Northern Michigan, while sophomore goaltender Zach Stejskal (illness) and sophomore wing Luke Mylymok (injury) remain out long-term.

Kaiser has missed the last four games while Loheit has been out for three since not finishing the Nov. 26 home game against Alaska. Francis and Fanti both missed last weekend’s series at Northern Michigan.

The Bulldogs have played the last two Saturdays with no healthy scratches in the lineup. They had two spare bodies going into the Thanksgiving weekend series with the Nanooks and just one prior to the defeats in Marquette last week.

UMD picked up just one regulation win in nonconference play the last two weeks, beating the Nanooks at home 5-1 and 1-0 in OT, followed by the 5-4 and 5-3 losses last week at Northern Michigan.

“We’ve dealt with it since the Minnesota series. Basically all year we haven’t had a full complement of players,” Sandelin said of the injuries and illnesses. “That’s part of the game, right? Obviously, it gets tough, but again, like I said, I'm not here to make excuses. You got to find ways. You ask your kids, some guys to step up and play. Maybe it's a different role, or elevate their play.”

Opportunity arises

Cates said it can be tough mentally on players when teammates' health statuses are up in the air each and every week, but it also opens up the door for others in practice and in games to step into new roles.

Both Cates and Sandelin highlighted sophomore defenseman Darian Gotz as a player who has seized his opportunity recently. The Hermantown native played in 19 games a year ago, and started the first nine of this season as the seventh defenseman.

Gotz jumped into a top-six role when sophomore Connor Kelley missed three NCHC games in November, and remained there for the last four while Kaiser was out. It was the start of NCHC play, however, at Western Michigan that Gotz really started to emerge.

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Minnesota Duluth defenseman Darian Gotz (2) takes control of the puck against Colorado College Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune landscape

In the last 10 games, Gotz has 19 blocked shots and put 17 pucks on net. That last number, the shots on goal, has not gone unnoticed by the UMD captain.

“He gets shots through and he is simple,” Cates said. “He gets pucks up the ice to the forwards. That's so important with young defensemen. I think it's tough for them to be simple and not do anything too flashy, but he takes pride in that and just makes the simple play.”

Cates also pointed to junior forward Ben Almquist as a player who has stepped up during the run of injuries and illnesses.

No names immediately popped into Sandelin’s mind, just that “some guys have been alright.”

“There's some guys that still need to pick up their play,” Sandelin said. “And if we don't get that, we're not going to be a very good hockey team, because we're not a team that can have passengers.”

Having played just 16 games in the 2021-22 season, 11 Bulldogs have missed a combined 53 games already due to injury or illness.

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Sandelin said a lack of continuity to the lineup is not an excuse for recent struggles, though. The Bulldogs need to find a way to get through it.

“That's when you want other guys to step up,” Sandelin said. “There's been opportunities. I can go back to when (Cates) got kicked out of the Michigan game. You're looking for guys to elevate their game and fill that void. Probably more disappointing than the 5-1 loss was that we didn't have guys step up and and fill that void and carry the weight a little bit more.

“You're going to lose players in games. Hope you don't, but you go through those situations. It's no different. When you're missing some key guys, it's an opportunity for other guys to play and then there's an opportunity for other guys to step up and do a little bit more. That's what I'm hoping to see, but I haven't seen a lot of it or enough of it yet. And so we'll see how it goes this weekend.”

Scouting the Pioneers

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Denver forward Carter Savoie (8) celebrates his goal against St. Cloud State in the second period Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, at Baxter Arena in the NCHC Pod in Omaha. Tyler Schank / File / The Rink Live
Tyler Schank

It’s been almost a year now since UMD and Denver last saw each other in the NCHC Pod in Omaha, where the Pioneers lost twice to the Bulldogs en route to a disappointing 10-13-1 season.

DU is back in form this season, ranked 11th in the country at 10-4 and sitting third in the NCHC with 12 points at 4-2. Those two league defeats came at North Dakota on Nov. 5-6 in which they were held to a single goal in each game. Since then, Denver has won six straight games over Western Michigan, Miami and Arizona State while averaging 5.67 goals per game.

Sandelin said Denver is a dangerous team that is “a pain in the rear to play against.”

“We don't have time to feel sorry for ourselves,” said Sanelin, whose team sits No. 5 in the country at 10-5-1 following two losses at Northern. UMD is a point back of Denver in the NCHC in fifth at 3-2-1. “We’ve got one of the best offensive teams in the country and in our league coming in here and they're hot right now.”

Sophomore forward Carter Savoie — snubbed for the Canadian World Juniors team — is leading the Pioneers in points (22) and goals (12). He’s one of five Pioneers on six-game point streaks and currently second in the NCAA and NCHC in goals per game (0.86).

NCHC standings

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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