When top-ranked St. Cloud State and No. 3 Minnesota Duluth meet on Friday and Saturday in their final regular-season series, not a lot tangibly will be up for grabs. The Huskies already own the Penrose Cup as NCHC champions, while the Bulldogs are trying to secure the No. 2 seed in the conference playoffs.
But the intangibles will be off the charts in this series, which might be a prelude to what could come in late March and even early April. Minnesota Duluth, the defending national champion and national runner-up in 2017, can make a convincing case that it’s the nation’s premier college hockey program over the past half-decade. St. Cloud State, meanwhile, has been ranked No. 1 for most of this year and part of last year, but NCAA tournament success has eluded the Huskies, who were bounced by Air Force in the first round last year.
“They’re a good test,’’ Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “It’s fun to play a good team before playoffs because it’s a good measuring stick to see where we’re at. Hopefully, that will bring out our best and we’ll continue to get some momentum going into the playoffs.’’
The Bulldogs (21-9-2) and Huskies (25-4-3) split their Jan. 11-12 series in Duluth, with UMD winning the opener 3-1 before St. Cloud State took the finale 4-2. Since then, the Huskies are 10-1-1 to the Bulldogs’ 9-3, enough for the team from the Granite City to secure the NCHC title.
“They’ve been sweeping teams we’ve had a tough time with,’’ UMD junior defenseman Nick Wolff said.
On the way to their second national title last year, the Bulldogs were a team that took some lumps early, then put it all together in the NCAA tournament. Balanced scoring plus the stingy goaltending of Hunter Shepard enabled UMD to win its second NCAA title since 2011. Shepard has been strong again – 1.89 goals-against average, .915 save percentage – and six Bulldogs have 20 or more points, including scoring co-leaders Justin Richards (10-17—27) and Scott Perunovich (3-24—27).
For Sandelin, Shepard has been old reliable.
“It’s a great place to start, you’ve got a guy that’s won a championship and has grown,’’ he said. “What I like about him is that sometimes when teams don’t have their ‘A’ game, he’s that guy who’ll find a way because he’s such a competitive kid.’’
The Bulldogs also had to make a staff adjustment during the offseason. Their top assistant, Brett Larson, left for St. Cloud State when Bob Motzko took the Minnesota job.
“Obviously, we have a little personal vendetta against Lars. It wasn’t nice of him to go to St. Cloud,’’ Wolff said, joking “… We’re very happy for him and how he’s made it one of the best college hockey teams in the country.’’
But which team is better at the end of the season? We won’t know that for a while. There’s a chance the Bulldogs and Huskies meet in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff in St. Paul on March 22 or 23, and an NCAA tournament meeting could follow. As of now, both would be No. 1 regional seeds, and that potential meeting could only be in the Frozen Four in Buffalo.
Sandelin won’t shortchange his team, but he knows St. Cloud State’s potential – and maybe even gave his old pal Larson something to think about.
“The biggest thing is they’re a really motivated team for what happened last year,’’ Sandelin said of the Huskies. “And if you look at the history, Denver was motivated after ’16 [a national seminal loss] and they won in ’17. We had a little bit of motivation after losing in ’17 [in the national final] and won in ’18. And right now, they seem to be on that path to not be denied.’’