At the midway point of the 2017-18 NCAA season, there was some question as to whether Minnesota Duluth was even going to live up to the lowered expectations the Bulldogs had at the start of the season.
The Bulldogs were picked to finish fourth in the competitive NCHC at the start of the season by the coaches and media, including this writer.
That’s what happens when your team loses 10 starters, including six of the top eight scorers and your starting goaltender.
Teams just aren’t expected to recover from that. They certainly aren’t expected to end up having an even better season than they did the previous year.
Yet that’s what the Bulldogs accomplished this season, and it’s why Scott Sandelin is our pick as USCHO coach of the year.
Reflecting on the losses from last year to graduation and early departures, Sandelin said, “The Adam Johnson thing later in the year (laughs), we kind of thought we were done with guys leaving. We knew there was a possibility of some guys leaving early along with the seniors. The Adam one kind of was unexpected, especially that late, but we were able to get Justin Richards to come in, and obviously he was a key recruit for us that was going to go back and play.
“We knew we had some challenges. One was who is going to jump up and be our goalie. It could have been one, it could have been two. How are the younger defensemen going to adapt to college hockey?
“I felt fairly good about our forwards, maybe not as high-end offensively as if we would have been if we were able to keep even Adam, because I think he was a difference-maker type player, but I thought we had good depth there and good balance and going into the year it’s probably exactly how it worked out where it was kind of a lot of different guys. Those were all the question marks a little bit going in, and I think our focus was, ‘Hey, let’s try and be better at Christmas than we were at the beginning and be better at the end than we were at Christmas.'”
However, at the midway point of the season, the Bulldogs had struggled even more than expected, and were hovering in last place in the conference. Yet the team weathered the early struggles, some of which were caused by injuries, and rallied to finish strong in the second half, ultimately finishing third and securing home ice for the NCHC playoffs.
“I thought the last game before Christmas against Omaha was an important game for us, and we came back and rebounded and won and then things kind of took off from there a little bit,” said Sandelin. “We got those guys back from the World Junior after our guys did a great job at that Christmas tournament in Dartmouth and we stayed relatively healthy for the most part. I think the chemistry started to form, and we put together a couple of runs and gained some confidence, and ‘Shep’ (Hunter Shepard) was playing better and better for us in net. I think our whole team grew in the second half, which is kind of expected when you have a lot of new faces.”
Even after finishing strong, a disappointing two-loss weekend in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff had the Bulldogs on the brink of having their season end as Boston University and Princeton secured surprising upset wins in the Hockey East and ECAC tournaments, respectively. With the at-large bubble having shrunk to just 12 teams due to Michigan Tech winning the WCHA, Minnesota Duluth needed everything to go right, including Notre Dame beating Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament, for the Bulldogs to edge out Minnesota for the final spot in the NCAA tournament.
The Bulldogs then made the most of it, winning their second NCAA championship of the decade, again at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., which was ironic because it was also where they had the disappointing weekend in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff in March that almost ended their season.
For the Bulldogs, there was some sense of unfinished business after they had lost to Denver in the championship game in 2017 in Chicago. Some of the players who remained imparted the lessons learned from that experience, and Sandelin used some of the same tactics he had used when the Bulldogs won their first championship in 2011.
“You just kind of stay with your same routines,” said Sandelin. “Going down there, we have a lot of Minnesota kids and let them see their families and do that. We don’t really have it super structured when you get there. I learned that the first time that play a little too serious about it and kids don’t really enjoy the whole experience, but I think those guys probably shared some of that. You know, it’s nice to have some guys that maybe have been in those big games or gone through the whole NCAA tournament, the regional and that, just to let those guys know what it’s about.
“Fortunately, we got a chance to experience the whole thing again by winning Thursday and ultimately winning it, but I don’t think things really changed.”