UMD: Despite COVID issues for UMass, experience teaches the Bulldogs that an opponent’s missing players ‘doesn’t make it any easier’

Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin instructs the Bulldogs during practice at PPG Paints Arena on April 7, 2021 in Pittsburgh (photo: Justin K. Aller/NCAA Photos via Getty Images).

Minnesota Duluth enters Thursday’s national semifinal against Massachusetts as the most experienced team in this Frozen Four, and by a landslide. Not only are the Bulldogs the two-time defending national champions, but in the last five years, Minnesota Duluth has made more Frozen Four appearances than the other three teams combined.

So, when news broke on Monday that their semifinal opponent, UMass, will be missing four players – including their top goaltender and leading goal scorer – due to COVID protocols, it probably isn’t surprising that the Bulldogs players and staff were somewhat unfazed.

“It was kind of the same thing as we had in Fargo a couple of weekends ago with Michigan,” said senior Kobe Bender, referring to the Bulldogs moving past the first round on a “no contest” after Michigan was removed from the tournament because of positive COVID cases on-site. “But we’re just trying to focus on ourselves, getting better everyday.”

When you talk to head coach Scott Sandelin, he too doesn’t have much of a reaction. As he says, it’s not like suddenly UMass won’t show up on Thursday. He understands, if anything UMass could be hungrier.

“It’s unfortunate and you feel for those players,” said Sandelin. “But again, what our players are saying, we haven’t had a lot of discussions about it. Those guys the read social media, they know what’s going on.

“It doesn’t make it any easier. We’ve got to worry about what we need to do, regardless of who is in their lineup. They’re a good hockey team. They’ve got a lot of depth. You see it time and time again, whenever there’s injury, a lot of guys step up and I’m sure that’s going to be the same for [UMass] tomorrow.”

It doesn’t hurt that you’re experienced when approaching a situation where things have changed drastically for your opponent. No one seems wide-eyed on Minnesota Duluth, likely a by-product of being 12-1 in this tournament – including 5-1 in the Frozen Four – over the last half-decade.

Sandelin is quick to acknowledge that playing under the dark cloud of COVID this season makes the Frozen Four feel different. He alluded to the typical demands that Wednesday would in other years place on his team: facing questions from hundreds of media members in the locker room and at a live press conference. Instead, a couple of players and Sandelin sat in a room and answered the questions of a sparse few over Zoom.

There also isn’t interaction with family, friends and fans. Certainly enjoyable experiences for the players and staffs, but those can take away from a team’s focus.

“This year is different, a lot different,” said Sandelin. “But the good thing is we have the guys who have been through it. The more you get those opportunities, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win all the time, but it helps.”

If anything, Sandelin and his team may feel like this Frozen Four and all the sacrifices that this Bulldogs team – and every other NCAA team in every sport in the country – made, changes the feeling. Some fans say that winning a Frozen Four this year, due to COVID, deserves an asterisk.

Maybe it does, but as the Bulldogs coach put it, this one would be special for a whole different host of reasons

“Let’s face it, these are all meaningful. [The Frozen Four] is a very difficult place to get to,” Sandelin said. “But a little bit more [meaningful] because of the sacrifices the players have made, it does make it a little more special that way.

“There’s been a lot of stress, anxiety week-to-week. But these all have great meaning. It’s special to get to the Frozen Four, hopefully we get past this first game and get a chance to play in the last game of the year, which is what everyone’s goal is.”