Frozen Four preview: Minnesota-Duluth overcomes setbacks to live up to potential

Often in sports, a team has some pivotal moment, something like one specific game that it can point to and say, “That’s where we started to believe.”

For the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, there was never any such moment. One, including the Bulldogs themselves, could argue that there were several small moments throughout the season. However, it was more of a matter of living up to preseason potential.

While Minnesota-Duluth maybe didn’t get as much hype on the national scene as fellow WCHA member and Frozen Four participant North Dakota, it was still expected to be one of the top teams in the league.

“We knew we had all the potential in the world on paper going into the season,” said forward and leading scorer Jack Connolly. “It was just a matter of executing and doing what we could.”

The Bulldogs executed pretty well in the first half, going 12-3-3 in 2010. That record was aided by success in the extra period. Nine of those 18 games went to overtime, with UMD’s record 5-1-3 in those games.

“We certainly had some puck luck and the right guys in the right position,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “And as we won those games, I thought our guys were never really fazed by it. I think they had an aggressive mind-set; when you start winning some of those games you kind of play to win instead of just playing for the tie. It helps when you’re in tight games in how to play and how to deal with that.”

Right around Christmas, though, was one of the first of those small, season-defining moments.

“We had a little setback with Dylan Olsen leaving at Christmas time and losing a pretty good player,” Sandelin said. “But Dylan leaving allowed some other players to step in to some positions. … I think sometimes when people leave it’s other people’s gain.”

As the second half progressed, the Bulldogs started to struggle — although, to them, struggling meant a lot of splits; their longest winless streak this season was three games and they never lost back-to-back games.

That persistence and ability to bounce back kept the team focused, and once UMD hit the postseason, a few more small moments hit.

“Heading into the postseason, we really buckled down and got a couple big wins against St. Cloud,” said Connolly, referencing his team’s WCHA playoffs first-round sweep, “and we felt like we could go pretty deep into the postseason.”

“I don’t think there was a lot of people, the way they were playing, they way maybe we finished as far as our win/loss record, that gave us a chance to beat them, but these guys pulled together and got it done in two games and that’s the kind of team they are,” said Sandelin.

So when the Bulldogs lost to Bemidji State in the WCHA Final Five the next week, they just regrouped again to take care of business against Union and Yale in the NCAA regionals.

“The one thing is this group never stopped believing in themselves,” said Sandelin. “They had a strong belief that they had a good team and when they put their mind to it, they can be a very good hockey team.”

One that you might want to watch out for in St. Paul.