Minnesota-Duluth hopes No. 1 ranking doesn’t change anything

Now Jack Connolly knows how the guys on the Minnesota-Duluth football team feel.

The football team has been ranked No. 1 in the AFCA Division II Poll for two weeks, and the Bulldogs hockey team is now the top-ranked team in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll.

With 18 points, Jack Connolly (left) is tied for third in scoring in Division I (photo: UMD Athletics).

“It’s pretty cool and a lot of the guys are excited,” said Connolly, a junior center for UMD. “Obviously a lot of people in Duluth are pretty excited that we’re No. 1. We knew we had all the talent in the world, we just needed to piece it together.”

There have been three different top-ranked teams in the past three weeks, and the Bulldogs are the fourth team to be ranked No. 1 this season. UMD (9-1-2, 6-1-1 WCHA) has won three straight games and is coming off a sweep of Michigan Tech.

UMD has the fourth-best scoring offense in the nation at four goals per game, with the fifth-best power play (27.4 percent). Mike Connolly (8-10–18) and Jack Connolly (4-14–18) are tied for third in D-I scoring and Justin Fontaine (8-8–16) is also in the top 10 and has scored four power play goals.

No. 15 Wisconsin will be the first team to get a shot at the No. 1 Bulldogs this weekend in Madison, Wis. The Badgers started the season 6-2-2 overall and 3-1-2 in the WCHA but were swept at home by North Dakota last weekend.

The series matches the high-flying UMD offense against Wisconsin’s staunch defense and goaltending. Last season, the Bulldogs and Badgers met just once, a mid-season split in Duluth.

The Wisconsin defense held UMD’s offense to 19 shots on goal while the Badgers offense assaulted Bulldogs goalie Kenny Reiter with 52 shots in a 5-2 Wisconsin win. The Bulldogs bounced back and blanked the Badgers 4-0 the next night.

But this is a different Wisconsin team in 2010-11. The Badgers lost a ton of scoring (208 points between four players) and rely on their defense and goaltenders more than ever. Scott Gudmandson (2.12 goals-against average, .928 save percentage) has split the goaltending duties with fellow senior Brett Bennett (1.47, .940) this year and both have been solid.

“It’s going to be our speed getting to their D-men and getting pucks to the net,” Jack Connolly said. “Hopefully we get a couple goals early Friday and take the crowd out of it.”

Jack Connolly said he expects special teams to play a vital part in the series, predicting whichever team does a better job capitalizing on power-play chances and killing penalties “will win a couple games this weekend.”

Connolly said he and his teammates have tried to put the rankings aside and added the pressure created by the attention is minimal.

“Wisconsin might look at like, ‘We got the No. 1 team this weekend and we want to knock them off,’ but we feel prepared,” Connolly said. “It’s nice to be No. 1 but we don’t look too much into it. It’s not going to affect the way we play and we’re going to go out and play every game the way we normally do.”

For now, the Bulldogs will enjoy the buzz swirling around Duluth focused on UMD, on the ice and the gridiron.

“We’ve grinded a couple overtime wins out and some of them haven’t been the prettiest wins but we got the job done,” Jack Connolly said. “We definitely still have a long way to go but we’re proud of our start.”