UMD-Gopher rivalry takes on new dimension

John Gilbert

UMD goaltender Hunter Shepard stood ready, while defenseman Dylan Samberg slid to the ice to try to block a UMass-Lowell shot. Photo credit: John Gilbert
UMD goaltender Hunter Shepard stood ready, while defenseman Dylan Samberg slid to the ice to try to block a UMass-Lowell shot. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Old-time UMD hockey fans may have set this weekend up on a pedestal,
the way it always used to be when the Bulldogs took on the University
of Minnesota in a WCHA series. Only this time the series is big for
all sorts of reasons.

UMD coach Scott Sandelin has done his best coaching when his Bulldogs
had to get things together for a stretch of steady improvement, rising
to get better every game through the closing part of the season, and
then seeing it continue through the playoffs. That’s what the Bulldogs
did last season to repeat as NCAA champions.

This year, that was impossible because UMD was declared a near
unanimous No.1 in preseason polls, and held that spot despite losing
an exhibition opener 5-3 to the University of Alberta, and they only
slipped slightly when splitting with UMass-Lowell, losing 3-2 in the
first game and responding well for a 2-0 rematch victory.

That sent the Bulldogs off on the road to Madison to face a vastly
improved Wisconsin Badgers outfit. The first game was close, but
things got away in the third period and the Badgers won 6-2. UMD
played better in the rematch, but fell 3-1.

The USCHO ratings have dropped the Bulldogs to No. 8, and with good
reason. Denver (67-0) is No. 1, and Minnesota-Mankato is No. 2,
followed by 3. UMass-Lowell, 4. Cornell, 5. North Dakota, 6.
Wisconsin, and 7. Providence, before 8. UMD, 9. Quinnipiac, and 10
Boston College.

So now comes the Gophers, with a Friday night game at Mariucci Arena
and a Saturday night rematch at AMSOIL Arena.

Obviously the game means a lot to the Gophers, who are fighting to
gain respectability and to regain the fan support they’ve dramatically
lost over the last three seasons. We don’t know how close to full
Mariucci will be Friday, but they can squeeze 10,000 in there, with
standing room. So any Bulldog fans who might wonder what it’s like to
see a game at Mariucci might be wise to make a run at this one.

Sandelin has gotten what he normally wants, a team that is sputtering
just enough that he can expect rapt attention while he guides them
back to a winning rhythm. So far, the first line, with Justin Richards
centering Cole Koepke and Nick Swaney, has been the offensive leader
for UMD, although a lack of scoring is the key shortcoming for the
Bulldogs.

The defense has been hit and miss. The tandem of Scott Perunovich with
Nick Wolff has been mostly outstanding, but the second tandem, with
Dylan Samberg paired with Louis Roehl, has been spinning its wheels.
Samberg was so good at the end of last season that he was named an
all-star on defense at the Frozen Four. It seemed that with Perunovich
playing well, but far below his full-health capabilities, Samberg and
Mikey Anderson seized the opportunity to lead the offensive output
from defense.

Perunovich is back, and Samberg, in my opinion, needs to throttle it
back a little and just make the easy plays for a few games until he
gets going. Roehl is capable of strong play at both ends, and that
should be a solid pairing.

Hunter Shepard let a few goals in at Wisconsin, and i you recall last
season, he played the Gophers to a 1-1 tie at AMSOIL, but was blitzed
7-1 in the Mariucci rematch, even though the Bulldogs dominated play
and outshot the Gophers badly. That remains the only truly bad game
I’ve ever seen Shepard play, and he remains the best goaltender in the
country.

The time to get it together and start climbing back up that ratings
ladder is at hand, and while a new generation of Bulldog fans may have
no idea how big Gopher-Bulldog hockey has been in the past, a whole
lot of older fans might consider it the biggest series of the season.

UMD WOMEN STUNNED

While credit must go to Wisconsin in the impressive sweep over UMD,
the UMD women’s team were beaten twice at Bemidji State, where coach
Jim Scanlan not only does an outstanding job tactically, but he’s done
a good recruiting job, too. Gone are the days when any Bemidji State
victory over UMD was a huge upset. Now I believe the Bulldogs and
Beavers have become prime rivals, and Bemidji State might be UMD’s
biggest rival as we move into the WCHA.

UMD has a tournament to take care of this weekend, but while most of
their early season statements have been centered on how they can
compete with the Wisconsins and Minnesotas at the top of the WCHA,
they need to start focusing on establishing some territory at the top
of the second tier.

This UMD team has Maddie Rooney in goal — the best goaltender in the
country on the women’s side — and they have a great first line and
some exciting defensemen. But the Bulldogs also have a little history
to live up to.

  It was 20 years ago that an athletic director named Bob Corran
brought in the Canadian women’s Olympic coach named Shannon Miller to
organize and coach a women’s hockey venture at UMD.

That also was the first year of WCHA women’s hockey, and in their very
first year, the Bulldogs won the championship. In their second season,
the Bulldogs were one of the key reasons the NCAA decided to start
having a women’s national women’s hockey tournament. UMD won that
tournament.

In the program’s third year, UMD won its second of two NCAA
championships. In its fourth year, the Bulldogs won their third — of
three — NCAA tournaments.

In those years, Minnesota was scrambling to keep up with the
high-flying Bulldogs, who was unquestionably the strongest women’s
hockey team in the country. Later, UMD won a fourth national title,
and then a fifth.

And then a new athletic administration, run by Josh Berlo, told Miller
her contract wouldn’t be renewed, which was a pleasant way of saying
“You’re fired!”

In the process, some of Berlo’s aides had counseled Miller and
suggested she was too competitive, and that she needed to quit
worrying about competing with Minnesota and Wisconsin, and focus more
on competing with the teams like Bemidji State and MSU-Mankato and St.
Cloud State. That’s pretty crude advice to someone who had UMD at the
top echelon of NCAA women’s hockey. But here we are. UMD had two tough
games at home against Mankato, winning both, the first one in
overtime. Then the Bulldogs went to Bemidji State and lost both games.

Just as the administration wanted.