Amid talk of everyone else, Minnesota-Duluth makes a name for itself

Under the radar and into the Frozen Four.

That’s the way it might have felt for Minnesota-Duluth at the East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn., last weekend.

 (2011 Melissa Wade)
Minnesota-Duluth's Jack Connolly centers one of the nation's top lines (photo: Melissa Wade).

“When we got to breakfast today our sign said University of Minnesota, so we’re going to have to change that in a hurry,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin quipped at the tournament’s opening news conference last Thursday.

That misnomer aside, much of the on-ice talk was focused on the three other teams in the bracket, particularly each of their respective power-play units. But in the end, it was UMD left standing and on its way to its first Frozen Four since 2004.

“Our power play came through,” Sandelin said following UMD’s 2-0 win over Union in the opening game Friday. “People talked about all the other three [teams’ power plays] coming in here and we kind of laughed about that. Our power play has been pretty effective over the last two or three years.”

That continued in Connecticut, as UMD finished combined 5-of-17 on the man advantage for the weekend.

Both goals against the Dutchmen came on the power play and the Bulldogs popped two during Brian O’Neill’s five-minute major Saturday against Yale, helping secure a 5-3 win over the tournament’s top seed in the regional final.

UMD will face Notre Dame on Thursday, April 7 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., the same location of its overtime loss to Bemidji State in the WCHA Final Five on St. Patrick’s Day.

The short trip to St. Paul comes after a long trip to Bridgeport for Minnesota-Duluth, which will play the remainder of its season in its backyard. They’ll be the only Minnesota team at the Xcel Energy Center, a fact that wasn’t lost following the Yale win.

“Anytime we’re ahead of the Gophers is a good thing for us,” forward Mike Connolly said. “We’re fortunate enough to be there and have the support of the state. It’s not very often you get an opportunity to have the whole state behind you.”

Top line comes through again

The numbers speak for themselves, as each of UMD’s skaters on its top line enters the Frozen Four with over 50 points on the year. But if there’s any doubt, ask Yale defender Jimmy Martin.

“They’re as talented as a top line as you’ll see in college hockey,” the senior said following Yale’s loss to UMD Saturday. “They’re a tough matchup for us. I thought we battled against them but they’re talented players.”

That line, centered by Hobey Baker finalist Jack Connolly and with Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine on the wings, combined for nine points on the weekend (four goals, five assists).

“It’s our second year in a row together and coach has given us the opportunity to play together and be creative out there,” Mike Connolly said prior to the tournament. “We’re not the biggest line, but we like to create with our speed.”

It almost wasn’t to be, as Sandelin said Fontaine had a chance to leave early but decided to come back for his senior year.

While that trio will be a story line heading into the Frozen Four, the Bulldogs are riding the performance of goalie Kenny Reiter, who was named the regional’s most outstanding player.

 (2011 Melissa Wade)
Kenny Reiter was the East Regional's most outstanding player (photo: Melissa Wade).

The junior helped stifle Union’s top-ranked power play on all nine of its chances Friday before holding off Yale’s high-scoring offense in the final.

“Kenny was phenomenal,” Jack Connolly said. “He stood on his head all weekend and made huge stops. He was our No. 1 star for the weekend. He played out of his mind.”

Starters and closers

They may have been overlooked heading into Bridgeport, but the Bulldogs started the year on fire, capturing the top spot in the Division I Men’s Poll for three weeks in a row in November. They entered December with an 11-1-2 record.

It’s unfair to call the rest of the season a total collapse, but the Bulldogs did slow down a bit and lost a chance to capture the WCHA crown with the 3-2 overtime loss to Bemidji State in the WCHA Final Five.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t think we were going to get to the Final Five,” Sandelin said. “We stumbled down the stretch. We weren’t great, we weren’t terrible, and we were in between. We won a lot of games early in overtime. We won a lot of tight games. I think that helps you when you get to this point. This team has never lost two games in a row all year. It’s pretty impressive. It tells you a lot about the character of the team.”