It says something about how good Minnesota Duluth has been over the last three years that despite only having nine losses, there was a sense among some followers of the game that Duluth was struggling a bit this season.
Partly, it may have been that the Bulldogs had been swept three times this year – by Wisconsin, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State.
That last sweep happened Jan. 17-18 and snapped a six-game unbeaten streak that started after the Bulldogs had been swept by Minnesota State at the end of November. Coming off the second loss to St. Cloud, the Bulldogs were starting at two straight weekends against the top teams in the NCHC in North Dakota and Denver, plus a series with resurgent Omaha.
It’s a test the Bulldogs passed with flying colors, going 5-1 and moving into sole possession of second place in the conference. Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin admits that he didn’t expect quite that run.
“We’re finding ways to win,” said Sandelin. “We had one of our best games Saturday against Denver, a little bit more of a 60-minute game. After that St. Cloud weekend, we were staring at North Dakota, Denver, Omaha before the break and I’m not sure if you told me were going to go 5-1, I’d believe you, but we did. Sometimes when you play those teams, they help bring a little bit more of your best, too.
“Our backs were a against a wall after that weekend at St. Cloud. Our guys stepped up and played pretty well. We’re still striving for that more consistent game over 60 minutes, but hopefully, that’ll come. I think those three weekends helped our confidence level.”
Sandelin points to the special teams and the play of goaltender Hunter Shepard, who has been a key part of Duluth’s back-to-back national championships. Shepard has played all 28 games so far, and while his stats haven’t quite been at the level of the previous two seasons, Shepard seems to be tightening up the area around the crease.
In the first game against Omaha, he was a key part of a dramatic momentum shift late in the second period, making a diving save on a wide-open net. The puck then was broken out to Tanner Laderoute, who scored on a breakaway.
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Shepard even got an assist on the play.
“That was crazy,” laughed Sandelin. “From the bench, you see the puck come out and the guy’s standing right there and I’m thinking, ‘Oh boy,’ and then ‘Shep’ was able to make a save on it. It was kind of a weird play on the transition, too, because we had kind of a late line change. Tanner was coming onto the ice and Nick Wolff just found him. That’s hockey sometimes; it’s crazy. I’m thinking it’s 2-1 them and then the next thing it’s 2-1 us going into the third period, and we certainly carried that momentum forward.”
While defenseman Scott Perunovich continues to dazzle both offensively and defensively, Noah and Jackson Cates have both significantly upped their offensive contribution. They are playing on the top power-play unit. Noah is second on the team in scoring with 26 points, while Jackson is fourth with 23.
“I think Noah’s been one of, if not our best, players all year,” Sandelin said. “He’s been really consistent. I think it started in the beginning of the year, coming in after his freshman year, finding some confidence. He’s been really good. Those two play really well together. I think they really play well off each other. We had some different guys with them, and they weren’t together the whole year. We finally decided to go back with those two and Nick Swaney. I actually think Nick has been one of our other most consistent guys, too. It’s been a really good line.”
Perunovich again leads the team in scoring, but his game has taken even more strides, in part because he’s been healthy all year.
“I think last year was a tough year,” said Sandelin. “He had some injuries and wasn’t completely healthy and mentally there either, and that’s hard when you’re trying to play through that stuff. This year from Day 1, he’s been healthy. He’s a dangerous player. A number of times he can control the game, he can see things that other people don’t. If I have one fault with him, he doesn’t shoot the puck enough. Other than that, he’s been better in all phases of the game, defensively for sure and offensive has been his strength.
“I don’t think he gets as much credit as maybe he should, but I think he’s gotten better in all phases of the game, as well as leadership.”
This weekend, the Bulldogs will hit the road and try to build on their four-game win streak, but they have their work cut out for them against a red-hot Western Michigan team that has moved into third place in the NCHC, just six points behind the Bulldogs.
“I think everyone knew going into the year they were going to be a really good offensive team with what they had coming back,” said Sandelin. “They had some injuries and different guys out the first half, and that probably played a little bit into their inconsistency. I know when we played them a month ago they got all those guys back and you could certainly see the difference in their team. They’re firing on all cylinders and scoring goals. They’re a dangerous team offensively, and they can skate. They compete extremely hard, they’re well-coached. When those guys start finding that rhythm, they can roll pretty good.
“We have to try to slow them down a little bit. They do a really good job of stretching out and getting guys to the net. You have to be defending well. We have to get pucks through and try to creates some opportunities around their net.
“They’re playing really well right now, and I’m not surprised. I thought we had a really good series with them a month ago. With those guys back in their lineup, it gives them a much deeper team, and certainly they’re dangerous team because they can play with speed and they can score off the rush in different ways. And it’s always a tough place to play. It’s a great atmosphere, so we’re kind of looking forward to that. We just have to make sure we’re doing some of the things we need to do, playing tighter defensively and limiting some of their opportunities and trying to find ways to not let them come up the rink through the neutral zone with a ton of speed.”
Colorado College gets outdoor win, NCHC tops again
In their second-ever outdoor game, Colorado College defeated cross-town rival Air Force 4-2 in the Faceoff at Falcon Stadium.
Tigers captain Grant Cruikshank scored his first-ever hat trick in the win, which completed a Tigers sweep of the Falcons and gave the Tigers the Pikes Peak Trophy for the second-consecutive year. The Pikes Peak Trophy is awarded to the winner of the yearly series between the two schools.
Cruikshank completed the hat trick with an empty-netter to seal the win late in the third.
The NCHC ended nonconference action with a record of 49-26-12 and a .632 winning percentage, the best of all six Division I conferences.