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A year ago, UMD hockey coach Scott Sandelin was surprisingly calm in looking ahead and assessing his Bulldogs, who had one lone defenseman returning in the person of Nick Wolfe, a sophomore, and nobody knew where the goal-scoring would come from as the team tried to defend its 2017 run to the NCAA Frozen Four.
Flash forward, and the same Scott Sandelin is facing an entirely new batch of questions and his team faces a new challenge — among which are the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Now coached by long-time St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko, the Gophers open the season with a home-and-home series against newly-crowned UMD, which will hang its banner Saturday night at AMSOIL Arena before the season opener, then the teams move Sunday to play in Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.
Along with being defending NCAA champs, UMD has been tabbed as the No. 1 team in the country in every ratings system on the planet. It will be interesting to see how foes focus on UMD, and how the Bulldogs respond to actually getting a little respect.
The questions going into this year are different for a team that defied statistics and logic to win their second NCAA championship with a youthful rebuilding team. One familiar question remains, of who will do the scoring, but nobody — especially UMD’s foes from last season — will question the young defense. Not only were the five freshmen and a sophomore never once the reason UMD struggled, but they wound up leading the way as the Bulldogs shocked the hockey world by winning the NCAA.
Scott Perunovich, one of those five freshmen a year ago, led UMD in scoring, as a freshman defenseman. It was suggested to Sandelin that there was good news and bad news in that nugget — the good news was it tells how immensely skilled Perunovich is, and the bad news is that...can’t any of the forwards score?
Sandelin got a chuckle out of that, and took us back to last season, when he and his staff made a couple of monumental decisions. One was because they had such a young crop of defensemen, mistakes were inevitable, so let’s let them happen without over-reacting and see what happens.
What happened was the defensemen were comfortable at the start, and gained confidence as the season progressed to the point where all of them might feel it comes easy to rush into the offensive scheme the way Perunovich did. Even Nick Wolfe, the lone returning defenseman a year ago, scored seven goals. And he’s a player — now a veteran as a junior — who said before last season that he would never score.
“We know Scottie will be skating up offensively,” said Sandelin, who was more of a stay-at-home defenseman at Hibbing High School and at North Dakota. “He’ll play like a fourth forward on some rushes, while the other defensemen pick their spots. How they develop will be a big part as we grow.
“As for Wolfie, it’s been fun watching him grow. He’s become a leader and he’s our hardest worker, every day.”
The second issue was scoring, and again Sandelin showed impressive wisdom in not showing any panic when scoring was not easy to come by. The laid-back theory was to let things unfold and maybe somebody would get hot. Didn’t happen, but it turned out the Bulldogs always seemed to get enough scoring from everybody chipping in, plus that big boost from the rambunctious defensemen.
“We expect more scoring from the forwards,” said Sandelin. “But I didn’t mind who scored, as long as somebody scored. We have some returning players who should score more. I expect Riley Tufte to maybe get up to 20 goals, and Nick Swaney, Peter Krieger, and Justin Richards could also score more. And we have some freshmen, who, in time, might add to the scoring, because all of them put up good numbers in junior hockey.”
The emergence of Hunter Shepard in goal last season provides a security blanket of sorts for Sandelin, who thinks highly of his other goalie candidates but acknowledges it “won’t be too tough to decide who starts against the Gophers.”
Up front, Krieger and Tufte were together and still are, with Swaney on their right wing; Richards and captain Parker Mackay — another forward who could add more to the offense — were linemates and may start being centered by freshman Noah Cates. His brother, Jaxon Cates, will center Jade Miller and Billy Exell on a fourth unit, although under Sandelin’s new and improved strategy, the fourth line is allowed to outplay the first line and get immediate promotion.
On defense, Wolfe and Perunovich will again be paired, and part of Wolfe’s rapid development last season might have been his responsibility for backing Perunovich’s offensive sorties. Dylan Samberg and Mikey Anderson was paired, and still are, and Matt Anderson and Louie Roehl are another duo.
“We’ve got some freshmen who are ready to step in and see what they can do, and it’s a nice problem to have, being able to shift guys around with more depth,” said Sandelin. “We’re deeper through the middle, and we’ll move guys around more easily.”
Sandelin also fulfilled his plan of a tough non-conference schedule, which helps the selection committee when it comes time to ranking teams for post-season positions.
“We’ve got a tough first month,” said Sandelin. “We always pride ourselves on a tough nonconference schedule, and this year, after Minnesota, we go to Michigan Tech, then we come home against Maine, and then we go to Notre Dame.”
Ah, Notre Dame. And we promise (wink-wink) to not bring up the fact that UMD beat Notre Dame 2-1 in the NCAA final last spring in Xcel Center. Nevertheless, there is always something special about a UMD-Minnesota hockey game, and the fact that the rivalry will serve as home opener for both teams makes this weekend special.