DULUTH — For the past two seasons, Nick Wolff and Scott Perunovich have been completing passes — if not each other’s sentences — as a defensive pair for the Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team. Wolff, a physical, 6-5, 230-pounder, and Perunovich, a smooth-skating offensive dynamo, have complemented each other during back-to-back NCAA championship seasons.
“That’s just the classic high-end offensive ‘D’ with a guy who doesn’t want the puck on his stick but will defend anybody,” said St. Cloud State coach Brett Larson, who coached the pair as a Bulldogs assistant.
But as UMD begins the quest to win its third consecutive national title and raises its 2019 NCAA banner on Friday against Massachusetts Lowell at Amsoil Arena, we might not always see Wolff and Perunovich playing together. Such is the case when you’re Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin, who has the envy of college hockey when it comes to blue-liners.
Sandelin, with the goal of keeping things fresh, maximizing talent and maybe keeping opponents guessing, paired Perunovich with fellow junior Dylan Samberg in the Bulldogs’ exhibition game against Alberta. That created a duo of second-round NHL draft picks — Perunovich by St. Louis in 2018 and Samberg by Winnipeg a year earlier — with star power.
“Sometimes, you’ve gotta just try different things. Sometimes, things get a little stale,” Sandelin said. “And sometimes, you’ve got to move guys around, whether it’s forward or ‘D’, and then you can rekindle it.”
The move — not set in stone, Sandelin stressed — has Wolff, a senior captain, paired with junior Louie Roehl, a defensive-minded player.
“I know if I put Nicky and Louie together,” Sandelin said, “they’d be miserable to play against.”
Paired or not, Wolff and Perunovich will be integral to the Bulldogs’ success.
A quick study
Perunovich took college hockey by storm in 2017-18, one of five Bulldogs freshmen defensemen who grew up in a hurry — with the help of Wolff, then a sophomore — on the way to the national championship. A Hibbing native, Perunovich had 11 goals and 25 assists that season, earned first-team All-America honors, then got the draft call from the Blues that June.
Last season, Perunovich’s goals total fell to three but his assists grew by one as he battled a back injury. He went through frustrating times but still was a second-team All-America pick.
“I didn’t know how to handle it,” he said.
Now healthy, Perunovich is confident in his development.
“In high school, I was about 50 times worse defensively. I went to juniors [Cedar Rapids of the USHL] and learned how to play the right way,” he said. “… The offensive part hasn’t changed in my game, but defensively I’ve been a little bit smarter now.”
He’ll lean on Wolff when need be.
“When I make a mistake defensively, he’s playing for two and knows he has to watch my back a little bit more,” Perunovich said. “If he’s got the puck and knows I’m open, he’s going to give it to me.”
Added Wolff, “It helps for me because I get a lot of apples [assists].”
Following the leaders
The past two Bulldogs captains, Parker Mackay and Karson Kuhlman, led the team to NCAA championships. Wolff and goalie Hunter Shepard are wearing the ‘C’s’ this season and will try to carry on that legacy.
“First, it’s a big honor being a UMD captain,” Wolff said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of pressure to it. It’s not just yourself you worry about, it’s 24 other guys on the team.”
His approach will be straightforward, like his play.
“Bring it every day. That’s just who I am,” Wolff said. “If some guys aren’t bringing that intensity and effort, I’m going to get on them.”
Wolff, who played a more offensive role at Eagan High School and in two years at Des Moines of the USHL, developed into a shutdown defenseman at UMD. His physical style of play, on display in April’s Frozen Four semifinals when he delivered a crushing open-ice hit to Providence’s Ryan Tait, remains a key.
“I like that physical aspect, but the game has changed, and you’ve got to do it safely and smartly,” said Wolff, a high school strong safety. “[Sandelin] does not want me to change that aspect, but he needs it to be in perfect times and situations.”
Wolff might not be passing the puck as often to Perunovich this season. Then again, he still might be.
“We’ll see if he starts to miss me too much,” Perunovich said with a smile.