Minnesota-Duluth wants right mind-set to defend national title

A year ago, the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs were still two months removed from moving into their sparkling new home and the idea of a national championship was but a dream.

Fast forward 12 months and there is a decidedly different atmosphere surrounding UMD hockey. While Amsoil Arena’s fresh paint fumes may have faded, the facility regarded as one of college hockey’s best now houses a team befitting of its grandeur: the defending national champion Bulldogs.

Senior forward Kyle Schmidt’s overtime goal to beat Michigan in the 2011 national championship game gave UMD its first title in men’s hockey and capped off a Cinderella season for the Bulldogs.

Although only two teams (Minnesota in 2002-03 and Denver in 2004-05) have accomplished the back-to-back title feat in the last 40 years, college hockey fans are a demanding lot and inevitably hunger for an encore after savoring success.

Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin acknowledged that expectations are certainly higher but emphasized the importance of keeping his players in the right mind-set for dealing with the success.

“We asked our players over the summer to keep the right attitude and work extremely hard because it’s going to be even tougher like it is every year no matter if you win or you don’t,” he said. “I think our guys had a good summer and came back in good shape.”

Not that there aren’t question marks. The Bulldogs suffered some key losses over the offseason to graduation and the NHL. Gone are senior forwards Justin Fontaine and his 58 points (22-36–58) and Schmidt (11-11–22) while junior forward — and leading goal scorer — Mike Connolly (28-26–54) signed a contract with the San Jose Sharks just days after the title celebration.

“It’s difficult when you lose the scoring that we did,” said Sandelin. “We’ve got to look to some guys to step up, and there’s still some question marks as to who those people are going to be.”

That’s not to say the cupboard is bare. Senior forwards Jack Connolly (18-41–59) and Travis Oleksuk (14-19–33) return, as does sophomore J.T. Brown (16-21–37), the Frozen Four most outstanding player. But Sandelin is looking for increased output from players like Mike Seidel, Dan DeLisle and Max Tardy to provide some supplemental scoring.

Although somewhat expected, perhaps the biggest blow was the loss of freshman defenseman Justin Faulk (8-25–33), who signed a contract with the Carolina Hurricanes and, incidentally, made Carolina’s opening-night roster. His departure combined with fellow defenseman Mike Montgomery’s graduation has left a huge hole to be filled on UMD’s blue line.

“I think we’ve got a good group that, hopefully, can defend well and move the puck up the rink,” said Sandelin. “Maybe we don’t have quite the offensive production that maybe we had with a Faulk or a Montgomery so it’s going to take some time but I certainly like the group that we have.

“We don’t really have that [power play] quarterback like we did,” said Sandelin. “But we’ve got eight guys back there that are led by Brady Lamb, a senior, and Wade Bergman, who have played a lot of minutes for us.”

Barring something unforeseen, the Bulldogs should be set in goal with sophomore Aaron Crandall backing up senior Kenny Reiter. The pair shared duties to begin the season but Reiter (16-7-5, 2.30 goals against average, .914 save percentage) emerged as the starter as the second half progressed and backstopped UMD’s championship run.

The fact remains, however, that the Bulldogs of today are vastly different from their championship predecessors, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be as competitive depending on who decides to seize their opportunity.

“We need some guys to grow a little bit,” said Sandelin. “We’ve got some freshmen that are going to get playing time and we certainly need to see where they’re going to be at through the early part of the year and see how quickly they adjust.”

About the Bulldogs

2010-11 overall record: 26-10-6

2010-11 WCHA record: 15-8-5 (fourth)

2011-12 predicted finish (coaches poll): Fifth

Key losses: D Justin Faulk, F Mike Connolly, F Justin Fontaine

Players to watch: F Jack Connolly, F J.T. Brown, F Travis Oleksuk, D Brady Lamb, G Kenny Reiter

Impact rookie: D Chris Casto

Why the Bulldogs will finish higher than the coaches poll: Reiter carries his playoff momentum into and throughout the regular season while a power-play quarterback emerges.

Why the Bulldogs will finish lower than the coaches poll: Inability to find supplemental scorers and a significant drop in special teams production, particularly the power play.