The University of Minnesota Duluth claimed its third national championship this past Saturday, its second in a row in a run of three straight national title game appearances. Unlike many Duluthians, I have no personal ties to UMD save living in the same city as its campus, and as I’m still eagerly awaiting the creation of a hockey program at my alma mater (I expect I’ll be waiting a while), their exploits provide reliable entertainment in the meantime. College hockey, in my book, will never match the intensity and the pageantry of the high school game, but I make a handful of Bulldog games each season, and when two-thirds of the national champion’s roster is comprised of Minnesotans, I’ll know a thing or two about the players on the ice.

Several of their key players were true Minnesota high school stars who I saw many times in their glory days. Hunter Shepard put together some of the most dominant goaltending performances I’ve ever seen when in high school at Grand Rapids. (Anyone looking to beat him really should hire Mike Randolph as a temporary consultant.) I first saw Scott Perunovich when he was a sophomore at Hibbing, where he immediately awed me by saucing passing on to the tape of his teammates’ sticks from 100 feet away. This didn’t stop the Hibbing mom in front of me from informing him he was a puck hog all game long, but his boundless talent was obvious. But there was also Nick Wolff, who lit up a couple of Musketeers in the championship game; I remember his Eagan coach, Mike Taylor, calling him a “human rain delay” when he wandered into a press conference a bit behind schedule. Dylan Samberg emulated Kyle Schmidt’s 2011 NCAA championship snow angel after he scored an overtime championship-winner of his own for Hermantown in 2017, and between his two titles as a Hawk and two at UMD, his past four seasons have ended in championships. Not a bad run.

This Frozen Four, the Bulldogs forsook the Schmidt-style drama and just overpowered opponents. Their games in the regional final in Allentown were more stressful than the final two in Buffalo; lulled into a trap, it appeared they might face the exits against scrappy Bowling Green in the first round. But after a convenient bounce knotted it up, the game never seemed in doubt. This group has a superb record in close games in recent playoff games, a testament to both a lack of panic and a steady system that relies on the team’s depth to grind opponents into submission. Once they’d staked themselves to an early lead in the national championship game, they settled into a sequence of steady offensive zone cycles that we Duluth East fans watch all season long, controlling the puck and probing for more. I’m biased, but I can’t name a more appealing style of hockey than that steady, physical brand of northern Minnesota control.

The title cements UMD’s place atop the college hockey ladder for the time being. Scott Sandelin has built a powerhouse on the hill overlooking Lake Superior, and he has done it through a steady process that draws attention only via the results on the ice. While his first two Frozen Fours had a handful of standout players who really elevated the team, that 2011 title put the Dogs on elite recruiting footing. Their depth now is such that no single Bulldog really stands out above the rest, and they can bring a relentless assault from four lines and six defensemen. They can afford to absorb good-but-not-great point totals from the likes of a Riley Tufte, who’s a reliable contributor but not the Casey Middelstadt-level first-rounder some expected him to be. And while they lose a few players to the pros early, as all college teams now do, there’s also some tradition of sticking around that players like Andy Welinski, Alex Iafallo, and Dom Toninato established in the years preceding these titles. Winning culture feeds on itself.

UMD also sits in one of the most attractive recruiting grounds in college hockey, and Sandelin has taken full advantage. While they’ll never claim every local star, they now keep many who previously might have looked elsewhere. (As one who left and came back myself, I will never begrudge the Dave Spehars and Ryder Donovans of the world for trying different paths.) The Bulldogs run a drama-free program, which is no small feat. Sandelin’s accolades are piling up now that he’s joined an elite group of coaches with three national titles, and opportunity may come knocking, though I could also see him being too content with what he’s built at UMD to consider moving on. He’s become an unassuming local legend, and I may even forgive him for choosing to live in Hermantown. (All joking aside, that relationship has been a beneficial match, both as a recruiting pipeline for the Bulldogs and as an attraction to that city in a swamp behind the mall.)

For now, even us Duluthians who aren’t born-and-bred Bulldogs (or, perhaps, bulldogs of a different litter) can thank this group for bringing glory to our city. They’ve done it the right way, they’ve done it with style, and while NCAA playoff hockey can be the ficklest of the major college sports, on paper, there’s no reason to think the success will slow down anytime soon. Right now, Duluth can stake a claim to the hockey capital of America, and don’t think we won’t revel in that crown for as long as we can.


UMD Hockey 2013-2014 Post-Mortem

The University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs’ playoff run came to an abrupt end on Saturday night, as a 3-2 lead entering the 3rd period slipped away, leading to a first-round sweep at the hands of Western Michigan. I have no real direct ties to the UMD program, save some loyalty to the numerous Duluth East players who make their way up the hill for college, but they do offer convenient high-level hockey for a Duluthian, and I end up at a number of games every year, including the season-ending loss this time around.

The result wasn’t a terrible tragedy for UMD. It was an improvement over last year. They were an incredibly young team still building up a new core to replace the one that won them a national championship three years ago; the regular season had its highlights, and a .500 record in the nation’s most balanced conference and against one of the nation’s toughest nonconference schedules is no great shame. The way it ended does leave a sour taste, though, as they were swept at home despite dominating long stretches of both playoff games.

The Bulldogs had one of the deepest stables of forwards in the NCAA this past season, as they showed when they had no trouble skating with powers like Minnesota and St. Cloud State. In fact, they may have suffered from an overload of quality forwards, with few who stood far above the rest. After a stellar freshman years, Tony Cameranesi and Austin Farley didn’t score quite as much, and there was much mixing and matching on two of the top three lines, which were interchangeable by the end of the year. Taking the place of the two sophomores as the lead producers were juniors Justin Crandall and Caleb Herbert, while Kyle Osterberg, the first of three big-time freshman forwards, impressed with his energy and knack for finding the back of the net.

By February, the one stable line all season long had emerged as the best: the line anchored by freshmen Dom Toninato and Alex Iafallo. They shut down other teams’ top lines and generated plenty of zone time, though in the end, they could have scored a little more; a more dynamic offensive player than Adam Krause might have been a more sensible third member for that line. To be fair, that could have come at the expense of some defense, and would have made the line noticeably younger, but while I respect Scott Sandelin’s principle of having each line feature two players with good chemistry together, the third guy needs to have a logical role within the scheme. The fourth line seemed under-utilized at times, too; it generated good chances when it did see the ice, but Sandelin usually leaned on three, and that sometimes seemed to hurt them late in games. The end result was a team that possessed the puck and moved it as well as anyone in the nation, but the chemistry for the finishing touch wasn’t always there. With another quality crop of forwards coming in next season, Sandelin and company will face a continued balancing act as they try to find ideal roles for everyone.

The struggle to finish can be especially troubling when a team’s defense isn’t stellar. Again, this isn’t a scathing critique; it was a young team, and there will be mistakes as players learn on the fly and the coaching staff tries to figure out exactly what it has. The team only has one complete, two-way defenseman right now: sophomore Andy Welinski, who was strong, but perhaps didn’t progress quite as much as one might have expected after his hype coming in and a strong freshman campaign.  Freshmen Carson Soucy, Willie Raskob, and Dan Molenaar should get there, as all three had some flashes and some eminently forgettable moments this season. When at its best, the defensive corps was quite dynamic, though it could do with an added dose of beef. Despite the unfortunate de-commitment of Blake Heinrich, they have a few players coming in over the next couple of years who should correct that imbalance.

When a team outshoots its opponent 37-11, it’s easy to scapegoat the goalie, but often, he isn’t the culprit, and that was the case with Aaron Crandall on Saturday night against WMU. The goals were all the products of power plays or odd-man rushes, and the game-winner was a combination of the two. It’s a frustrating refrain that Duluth East fans will also know all too well: the team dominates play for long stretches, only to see a defenseman pinch too far in or backchecker play without quite enough zeal, and all of the sudden, the other team has a rush going the other direction, and generates a better scoring chance than anything the team had in several minutes of offensive zone possession. Part of the trouble there is youth and inexperience, which UMD will simply have to outgrow, but such fundamentals are the sort of thing a college-level team should be able to anticipate and protect against. Still, the point here is that UMD’s style of hockey can unfairly burden goalies and skew their stats, and Crandall had some big games for the Bulldogs this past season. He is the only graduating senior who will be a loss of any great size.

One other trend this season deserves a mention: the Bulldogs were bad at home, going an ugly 5-10-3 at Amsoil Arena. Of course much of the blame falls on the players and coaches there, but the fans ought to share a chunk of the blame as well. UMD had the 7th-highest attendance of any team in the nation, but you wouldn’t have known it most nights, as tickets sold far exceeded the number of seats filled, and those bright yellow empty seats were pretty conspicuous. The student section had good numbers but usually had to be coaxed to life by the scoreboard; there was very little in the way of creativity or rowdiness. The rest of the fan base does little to pick up the slack. (The crowd had to be practically dragged to its feet late in the season finale, as a few fans tried to coax a little energy into a team fighting for its playoff life.) Duluth is a great hockey market, and anyone who’s been to a 7AA section final knows just how loud Amsoil can get when it has some fiery fans in the arena. With so many seats right on top of the ice, the place should be rocking in big games, and one of the most intimidating arenas in the nation. But I’ve been to Badger games at a cavernous, half-empty Kohl Center with far more energy. The atmosphere at most Bulldog games seemed like a dinner party, with everyone chatting politely and perhaps offering up some musing commentary on the action out on the ice. It’s disappointing.

At any rate, the season was a step in the right direction for the Bulldogs, and if they build on some of these foundations, the future certainly looks bright.