Scott Sandelin couldn’t imagine a more daunting situation. After Minnesota Duluth lost 2-1 to Bemidji State on Feb. 9, the Bulldogs’ record stood at 11-12-5 — and their next two series would be at North Dakota and St. Cloud State, both ranked among the top four in the country.
Sandelin’s team came out of the weekend in Grand Forks with a pair of 2-1 losses, but the coach saw something unexpected when UMD returned home. “For whatever reason, our guys came out of there feeling better about where we were at and how we played,” Sandelin said. “Then we got two big wins, and we started to gain a little more confidence.”
Those two key victories came at third-ranked St. Cloud State, and they started a seven-game winning streak that propelled the Bulldogs from frustrated underachievers to the NCAA tournament. The fourth seed in the Northeast Regional at Worcester, Mass., UMD begins play Friday against defending national champion Providence. North Dakota, the top seed in the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati, also plays in the first round Friday against Northeastern.
UMD was the favorite to win the National Collegiate Hockey Conference championship, and Sandelin anticipated his team would revolve around a powerful offense. Instead, the Bulldogs slowly developed a reputation for their defense, as well as a resilient spirit that withstood a 3-7-1 stretch including six one-goal defeats.
Through those difficult times, Sandelin never saw a need to make drastic changes. By remaining patient — and relying on a core of strong senior leaders — he and the Bulldogs earned their second consecutive invitation to the NCAA tournament.
“When you look at early February, we weren’t in really good shape,” said Sandelin, whose team’s win streak ended with a 3-1 loss to No. 4 St. Cloud State in the NCHC tournament final. “We were coming through a month where we struggled. But we just tried to stay the course, and I give our guys a lot of credit.
“There were frustrating times when we felt like we could have — and should have — won games, but you walk out with a loss. We just kept preaching the same message, and slowly, the team embraced it.”
UMD will play in the Northeast Regional for the second consecutive year, with 16 players returning from the roster that beat the Gophers in the first round last spring before falling 3-2 to Boston University. While the offense produces plenty of shots — 34.1 per game, sixth best in the country — it is scoring only 2.71 goals per game, which ranks 26th.
The defense, however, has exceeded expectations. Sophomore goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo is allowing 1.93 goals per game, on pace to break the school record, and has a .922 save percentage with five shutouts. During the current 7-1 streak, he has stopped 184 of 197 shots for the nation’s eighth-ranked defense (2.05 goals per game). The Bulldogs also are among national leaders in fewest shots allowed (25.1 per game, fourth) and penalty killing (86.7 percent, sixth).
An eight-member senior class, including seven Minnesotans, helped UMD reach the NCAA tournament on the heels of its longest winning streak since 2004.
“When you’re not scoring a lot and you’re losing games, our focus shifted to being more of a defensive team,” Sandelin said. “Sometimes it takes a while for a team to find its identity.
“We’ve got a great goaltender, and we’ve had a strong team defense all year. Fortunately for us, our guys embraced that. And we’re going to have to carry that identity into the [NCAA] tournament.”
UND is ‘battle-tested’
North Dakota (30-6-4) is making its 14th consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament, second longest in history to Michigan’s streak of 22 in a row (1991-2012). Brad Berry will make his NCAA tournament debut as head coach after being promoted to the top job last May.
Northeastern is 13-0-1 in its past 14 games, but Berry said the rugged NCHC schedule has prepared his team well.
“Our guys are battle-tested and ready,” Berry said. “We’re very businesslike. We’re very blue-collar, and we have that machine-like mentality.’’