This Week in NCHC Hockey: Minnesota Duluth hosting limited fans, players ‘pretty focused’ on taking care of business on ice

Minnesota Duluth sophomore Ben Almquist scored his first NCAA goal last Sunday as UMD swept Western Michigan on home ice (photo: Dave Harwig).

There’s no getting around the fact that this is not a normal college hockey season, but a small slice of normality returned to Minnesota Duluth’s Amsoil Arena home last weekend when the sixth-ranked Bulldogs hosted Western Michigan.

A combination of positive COVID-19 tests, contact tracing and subsequent quarantining of individuals within the UMD program had recently caused the Bulldogs’s schedule to change. Their series scheduled for Jan. 15-16 at Miami was moved to this weekend, Jan. 29-30. Then, it was announced Jan. 19 that the start of UMD’s home series last weekend against Western Michigan would be pushed back a day, making it a Saturday-Sunday set.

The delay didn’t seem to bother the Bulldogs, who swept Western Michigan and scored a combined nine goals in the process. Jackson Cates had a natural hat trick and five points Saturday in a 5-1 win, and UMD got goals from four different scorers Sunday in a 4-1 victory.

Even better, the Bulldogs got to play in front of fans at Amsoil Arena for the first time this season. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz recently loosened the state’s COVID-19 restrictions to allow up to 150 fans into arenas, and UMD had no problem hitting that number Saturday and Sunday. Family members of many players were in attendance, as were UMD students who were spread out behind the net that the Bulldogs attacked in the first and third periods.

UMD coach Scott Sandelin was pleased that his team gave the fans plenty of reasons to cheer, although his focus remained on what was happening on the ice.

There was no change there from when the Bulldogs opened the season with nine games at the NCHC pod in Omaha, Nebraska, prior to the holiday break. UMD then split a series at No. 5 St. Cloud State and then dropped two one-goal games to the Huskies at home Jan. 8-9.

“When you have 150 people in a 7,000-seat building, it still doesn’t seem like there’s anyone in there, but the guys knew they were there,” Sandelin said about the Western Michigan series. “It’s still hard to get used to because the buildings are still quiet, and there’s not the normal energy you have, but playing those games in the pod, the guys got used to that, and there are certainly moments in a game where the crowd gives you energy, but for the most part, the guys are still playing and there are still momentum swings, hits, goals, and things in a game where the crowd can have an influence with that, but that’s probably the unique thing about this, that you don’t have that.

“The guys on the benches are how they normally are, but there aren’t the oohs and the aahs and the cheers that are a normal part of the game. I’m the same way once the game starts. You’re pretty focused on what you’re doing, and you hear things when you have crowds, but aside from seeing the students at the one end spread out and trying to do what they can, and the parents were behind us so I didn’t look behind me, but within a game, you hear if someone has a big hit or there’s a goal, you feel that energy, and the guys on both teams did a good job where the intensity level hasn’t changed.”

Last weekend’s sweep of Western Michigan saw UMD bump its record to 8-5-2, giving the Bulldogs a six-point cushion over Denver for fourth place in the NCHC standings with a game in hand.

It’s tough to gauge how much of an impact having 150 fans in attendance had last weekend for UMD. But then, you don’t get noise out of cardboard cutouts.

“When we started in the pod, we knew there was only going to be whoever was working there and maybe some visiting players (as spectators), and you just got used to it,” Sandelin said. “Once the players get on the ice, they’re pretty focused and they go through the task at hand.

“I don’t know if we remember what normal is any more, and hopefully we can get that back soon and feel that emotion and energy in the buildings you play in. I’ve talked with other coaches, too, and going on the road is probably easier because the home team wants that energy and that boost, and right now, I don’t know if it’s more detrimental to the home team or the visiting team. For the visiting team, it’s pretty normal. Sometimes you have fans, unless you’re playing North Dakota and they travel pretty well, but there’s not normally a ton of visiting fans on a lot of the buildings when you’re on the road, but the home team (would normally have) has pretty good crowds.

“The guys miss it, but it’s not like we had it when the year started, so the guys are used to the way it’s been, and they were excited to have their parents (there in person) and not watching on a livestream or TV, so that’s exciting for them.”

Getting ready for this weekend’s series at Miami has been different than what Sandelin would normally have at this point in a season.

In late January and into February, coaches are carefully managing practice times with players who are approaching the home stretch of another meat-grinder of a season. Doing so this time around takes on a different look, though, especially for a team that last week was getting ready to play again after having pressed the pause button.

“We only had a few days of practice, but the guys had a lot of energy, and it’s funny because I think you look at the teams that have come out of those pauses, and they’re raring to go,” Sandelin said. “I think teams have done pretty well (after those situations), and not that you want them to happen, but they guys were excited again to get back on the ice, and there are a lot of emotional swings, ups and downs.

“We haven’t had a normal, Monday-through-Thursday, week of practice since probably prior to the pod. I’m hoping that after this weekend, knock on wood, everything goes good and we can have what I call a normal week before we play Miami again (at home Feb. 5-6).”

Whether UMD will be allowed to bring in bigger numbers of fans for the Bulldogs’ remaining four regular-season home games is yet to be seen. Sandelin isn’t stressing over that, however.

“We all hope it happens, but right now, it’s day to day, week to week, and I’m just hoping we can keep playing and get into a normal rhythm and not have any more shutdowns, whether it’s us or another team,” Sandelin said.

“Everyone wants to play, and if we’re able to get more people in the building or play in (another) building that has fans, that would be fun, and that’s what we’re all hopeful for.”

Mavericks break Denver’s spell

On Sunday night, ninth-ranked Omaha ended a frustrating six-year, 19-game losing streak against Denver by beating the No. 20 Pioneers 5-2 at Baxter Arena.

Two goals from Taylor Ward helped UNO over the top, and the Mavericks also got one goal apiece from Jimmy Glynn, Kevin Conley and Matt Miller. Ward’s second goal of the game and team-best seventh of the season gave UNO daylight with 13:25 left, and Miller then added an empty-netter.

UNO was 0-16-3 in its previous 19 games against Denver, dating back to January 2015. The Mavericks won Sunday’s game despite being outshot 44-29. Isaiah Saville earned his seventh win of the season in net.

The Mavericks play at home again this Friday and Saturday against No. 2 North Dakota.