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UMD men's hockey: Bulldogs return from break to take on No. 1 Minnesota State

After starting the season playing eight of their first 12 games against top 10 teams, the No. 6 Bulldogs will run the gauntlet again following their holiday break, starting with the top-ranked Mavericks.

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Minnesota Duluth's Noah Cates controls the puck against Minnesota State during the two teams' last meeting against each other at Amsoil Arena on Saturday, Nov. 29, 2019. The Bulldogs host the Mavericks on New Year's Day at Amsoil Arena following a game Thursday in Mankato. Clint Austin / File / News Tribune

Sixth-ranked Minnesota Duluth returns from its holiday break this week to play a nonconference home-and-home series against No. 1-ranked Minnesota State, with puck drop scheduled for 7:07 p.m. Thursday in Mankato and at 6:07 p.m. on New Years Day in Duluth.

It’s the first of five series the Bulldogs will play over the next eight weeks against teams currently ranked in the top 10 of the national polls — and Pairwise rankings — with a trip to St. Cloud State on deck next week to restart NCHC play.

“It's going to be a lot like the teams we play in our league. It's going to be a challenge for two nights, we're looking forward to it,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. “I think our guys are excited about playing a team like that right away.

“When you see them and then who we have next weekend getting back into league play with St Cloud, it's kind of like the beginning of the year, right? It doesn't get any easier, two really good teams to start off the New Year. It'll be a challenge.”

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The Bulldogs have recently taken post-Christmas trips to Thunder Bay, Ontario, for exhibitions against Lakehead University (2014-15); to Hanover, New Hampshire for Dartmouth’s Ledyard Bank Classic (2017-18); to Phoenix for Arizona State’s Desert Hockey Classic (2018-19); and to North Andover, Massachusetts, for a series at Merrimack (2019-20).

The COVID-19 pandemic has kept the Bulldogs closer to home the past two seasons, as they restarted NCHC play against the Huskies on New Year’s weekend last season and now they are set for an in-state battle with the Mavericks.

As fun as those trips can be, Bulldogs fifth-year senior defenseman Matt Anderson said the team is excited to be sticking close to home this year, considering the opponent.

“Dartmouth was a really, really cool spot. It kind of felt like Hogwarts, almost, but it’s nice to be home for sure,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be fun to play Mankato, the No. 1 team in the country. We’re always raring to go against a team like that.”

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Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin talks to his team against Michigan in the Ice Breaker Tournament on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Sandelin family reunion

This week’s series between the Bulldogs and Mavericks marks the second time in three seasons that Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin will take on his son, Mavericks junior forward Ryan Sandelin.

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Ryan Sandelin won the first meeting over Thanksgiving weekend back in 2019-20 when he was a freshman, picking up an assist in the Mavericks’ sweep of the Bulldogs at Amsoil Arena. The Sandelins nearly faced off again last spring at the 2021 NCAA Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, however, both the Bulldogs and Mavs fell in the national semifinals.

Another opportunity was missed this October during the Ice Breaker Tournament at Amsoil Arena after UMD ended up in the tournament consolation following a loss to Michigan while the Mavs advanced to the final (where they also lost to the Wolverines).

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Minnesota State forward Ryan Sandelin (14) reacts after scoring a goal against Michigan during the second period of the third game of the Icebreaker Tournament on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth, Minn. Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

“It was good to kind of get the first one out of the way a couple years ago,” Scott Sandelin said. “I didn't like how the results ended up that weekend. I've heard about it from him a little bit.”

Ryan Sandelin has had a lot to brag about this season. His 12 goals not only lead the Mavericks, but is tied for fifth in the nation at Christmas.

Nine of Ryan Sandelin’s 12 goals — plus three assists — have come in his last 10 games. He scored two goals back in October against Providence and Michigan in his return to Amsoil Arena for the Ice Breaker.

“He’s going to score his goals around the net, loves to get there. That’s where he’s scoring,” Scott Sandelin said of his son. “He’s playing well for them, he’s playing consistently. As a dad, I’m happy for him. I just told him to take it easy on us when we play him.”

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Goalie showdown

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Minnesota State goaltender Dryden McKay (29) stops a shot on goal against Providence during the first period of an Ice Breaker Tournament semifinal on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth, Minn. Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

In addition it being a Sandelin family reunion, this week’s series between the Bulldogs and Mavericks pits two of the country’s top goaltenders against each other in UMD junior Ryan Fanti and MSU senior Dryden McKay.

Fanti, the Bulldogs junior in just his second season as a starter, ranks fifth nationally among goalies who have played 600-plus minutes this season in both save percentage (.935) and goals against average (1.57). His four shutouts put him tied for fourth.

McKay — a two-time All-American and finalist for the Hobey Baker and Mike Richter awards last year — also ranks in the top 10 in both save percentage (.924) and GAA (1.33). The NCAA leader in career shutouts with 30, he has six this season to lead the country with two others.

Fanti said McKay was one of the opposing goaltenders that really stood out to him when he was a backup behind Hunter Shepard back in 2019-20. McKay’s consistency over his four years is the biggest asset of the Mavs’ goalie, Fanti said.

“I’m looking forward to having the chance to play against him, and hopefully have a really good battle,” Fanti said. “Obviously I want to come out on top of that. Just like any good goalie in our league, it takes a lot to go and score on them. You want to get some traffic, you got to get second and third opportunities and really throw everything we can.”

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Minnesota Duluth goaltender Ryan Fanti (39) watches a shot come in during the second period against Denver on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Jed Carlson / File / Superior Telegram

Injury updates

Bulldogs sophomore goalie Zach Stejskal is back skating with the team after being diagnosed with testicular cancer back in October, however, Scott Sandelin said the Cohasset native will need some time still to get back into playing shape.

Sandelin, Fanti and Anderson said Tuesday it’s nice to have Stejskal back on the ice, as his presence in practice has provided the team big morale boost.

“He’s always laughing, lifting the mood, especially in the locker room,” Anderson said. “It’s really great to have him around, big time.”

In other long-term injury news, sophomore forward Luke Mylymok started skating lightly prior to the holiday break, but Sandelin said it could still be some time before Mylymok returns. He’s been out injured since the start of the season.

Bulldogs scoring at World Juniors

Besides Stejskal and Mylymok, the only players not available for UMD against Minnesota State are the two playing for the U.S. National Junior Team at the World Junior Championship in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta — sophomore defenseman Wyatt Kaiser and freshman center Dominic James.

Kaiser had an assist Sunday in the USA preliminary round win over Slovakia while James scored a goal last Thursday in a pre-tournament OT loss to Finland.

“I thought Wyatt and Dom have both played well,” said Sandelin, who has coached in four World Juniors as an assistant and head for Team USA. “Dom was Dom — right? — showing his speed. I thought Kaiser looked really good. He was very involved in a lot of shots. He played a part in the third goal with the shot on net and rebound. Good to see those guys doing well and we’ll keep rooting them on.”

The U.S. had to forfeit its game Tuesday against Switzerland because the team had to quarantine following two positive COVID-19 test results by players. The U.S. is supposed to play Sweden on Wednesday.

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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