It hasn’t happened in 66 years, but Scott Sandelin isn’t about to shy away from the possibility.
His Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs have won back-to-back NCAA men’s hockey championships and have a chance this season to match the feat only one team has accomplished. Michigan won three consecutive national championships from 1951 to ’53.
“You can get to three without getting to two, right?’’ Sandelin asked reporters during the NCHC’s Media Day on Thursday at Xcel Energy Center. “So, we have a chance. … It’s out there. You’ve got to embrace it.’’
The Bulldogs certainly have the talent to join those 1950s Wolverines. Minnesota Duluth is the preseason favorite to win the NCHC, the conference that has produced the past four NCAA champions. Led by Hunter Shepard, who’s established himself as the nation’s best tournament goalie over the past two seasons, the Bulldogs have four players on the preseason All-NCHC team. Joining Shepard on that team are defenseman Scott Perunovich and forwards Justin Richards and Nick Swaney.
“Our guys are excited about it. They know how much work it is to get back there and how hard it is to do it,’’ Sandelin added. “… You can’t run and hide from it. It’s pretty cool, actually.’’
The Bulldogs beat Massachusetts 3-0 in Buffalo, N.Y., in April to win their second straight NCAA title and third in school history. The focus quickly turned to the 2019-20 college hockey season, which finishes with the Frozen Four in Detroit.
“As soon as we won, Sandy gave me a hug in the handshake line. We were like, ‘We might as well just try to do it one more time,’ ’’ said Shepard, who’s back for his senior season rather than signing a pro contract. “I told the guys straight up, ‘I’m not leaving.’ ’’
Getting back to the Frozen Four, however, is no gimme for UMD, and Sandelin knows the path isn’t easy.
“From the makeup of our team, we’re going to be very similar,’’ he said. “Whether the identity and how it all comes through – whether those kids are going to be willing to play as hard, we’ll find out. I’m going to make sure they’re trying.’’
Filling holes at St. Cloud State
In his first season at St. Cloud State, coach Brett Larson guided a veteran Huskies to the NCHC regular-season title by a whopping 19 points over second-place Minnesota Duluth. This season, Larson faces the challenge of replacing such stalwarts as Hobey Baker Award finalist Jimmy Schuldt, the team’s top three scorers -- Patrick Newell, Blake Lizotte and Robby Jackson, who combined for 54 goals and 75 assists – and Ryan Poehling, who scored a hat trick plus a shootout winner in his NHL debut.
“We have a lot of new faces this year,’’ said Larson, whose team was the No. 1 overall NCAA tournament seed last season but lost in the first round to American International. “… The returners see an opportunity to step into bigger roles, so they’re hungry and excited about it. The freshmen see there’s opportunities to step into as well and try to make an impact.’’
Larson will rely on the leadership of senior captain Jack Ahcan, a defenseman who had a team-high 28 assists and earned second-team All-America honors last year.
“He’s got 10 freshmen watching him every day – how he shows up at the rink, what he’s like in the weight room, what his pre-practice preparation is like,’’ Larson said. “Jack’s doing a great job of that.’’
UND seeks rebound
North Dakota finished fifth in the NCHC last year and missed the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row. The culprit: a lack of goals. The Fighting Hawks averaged 2.5 goals per game last season, which ranked 41st nationally, and their power play scored on only 14.2 percent of its chances, 52nd among the 60 Division I teams.
“We’ve made a number of adjustments,’’ North Dakota coach Brad Berry said. “We made a coaching change [Matt Shaw out, Karl Goehring in], we switched roles with our coaches, we brought in some different players, and we think some of our current players are going to elevate on the offensive side. We haven’t just sat back and said, ‘Well, it’s going to be better.’ ’’
From the Commish
NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton gave his annual State of the Conference address. Among the highlights:
* Fenton remains a big proponent of three-on-three overtime, and he credited Atlantic Hockey for joining the NCHC, WCHA and Big Ten in adopting it. He said a survey about 550 players from four of the six Division I men’s conference indicated 96 percent support for the five-minute, three-on-three format, which comes after the NCAA-mandated five minutes of five-on-five OT and applies only to conference standings.
* The consolation game in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Xcel Energy Center will be played in 2020, but its future is uncertain beyond that. “There are aspects about this game that may not be favorable, not the least of which are two teams playing a game that may not have much meaning,’’ Fenton said. “We continue to discuss different options with our membership and our partners.’’
* NCHC referees will have microphones during games this season and will announce penalties and review situations.
* The NCHC continues to discuss an international showcase, possibly in Europe. “We’re not quite all the way there yet,’’ Fenton said.
* Fenton said he briefly spoke with Alabama Huntsville coach Mike Corbett after seven WCHA teams announced they’re leaving the conference to form their own league that would begin play in 2021-22, leaving the Chargers, Alaska and Alaska Anchorage without a conference. “It was simply around the fact of what comes next and maybe help him understand a little better of what may come next,’’ Fenton said. “I haven’t had any discussion with the two Alaska schools.’’