CHICAGO — Spend five minutes with Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin and you can tell he’s a smart man. How smart? Smart enough to listen to Wendy, his wife.
“I’ve told my wife a couple of times, I don’t know if I’ve ever figured this group out all year, and she just told me, ‘Don’t worry. They’re doing fine,'” Sandelin said Friday. “So sometimes that happens.”
It’s easy to pick apart and hyper-analyze a team you’re coaching. It’s something the media likes to do, too, especially the day before a national championship game. Figuring out what makes a team tick, however, is counterproductive. Some teams are difficult to reduce to a simple explanation.
That is the sum total of this year’s Minnesota Duluth team. And that is a good thing.
The Bulldogs have been at or near the top spot in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll and PairWise Rankings all season, sharing the space with Denver and occasionally a couple of other teams but never far from No. 1.
The team has hovered somewhere between seventh and 10th in team offense and defense all season and they’ve won a lot of games by a single goal. But they’ve won, most notably in the second half, when they’ve gone 16-3-4, and they have just one loss in their last 20.
“Sometimes it doesn’t feel like that because all our games have been so hard and grinding,” said Sandelin, “and sometimes you go through those streaks where you just feel you’re really on top of the world.”
They’re a team that appears loose in practice this week but a team that played a tight, tense game against Harvard on Thursday night, pulling out the 2-1 win in the final minute of regulation.
“It’s a pretty surreal feeling,” said senior defenseman Brenden Kotyk. “We’ve all had different paths, but I think we’ve come together as a team. Everybody brings something a little different to the table and I think that’s why we’ve been so successful.”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been on a team that’s as close-knit as the team we are now,” said senior defenseman Dan Molenaar. “We love coming to the rink. We just love being with each other.”
Sandelin said that his team has had “some tremendous parts,” and that may be the only way to define Minnesota Duluth. Sandelin seems to have taken his wife’s advice to heart and let go of trying to get a fix on the group as a whole.
The players and coach talk a lot about chemistry, but that chemistry is a byproduct of experience rather than simple serendipity.
“I’ve been through streaks where you just feel like you can’t do anything wrong,” said Sandelin, “and this is one where I just feel like every game we have a chance to win. Our guys do, too, and they know it’s going to be a hard or a tight game, so I think just mentally they’ve grown stronger that way.”