The Bulldogs needed to blow off some steam. Minnesota Duluth had lost three consecutive games and had been swept out of the NCHC playoffs two weeks ago in Denver.
The captains were forced to reassess the mental health of their team, and they decided there was a pick-me-up to be found in an arcade and bowling alley.
They used the extra day of their trip, which opened up after the sweep, to unwind at a Dave & Buster’s less than 2 miles from the arena where they had been beaten up the past two nights. Hockey was the last thing the Bulldogs wanted to think about after 11 weekends of action in a row.
“We were all upset and we had a captains’ meeting and decided we needed to get away from the rink,” said Bulldogs senior forward Justin Crandall, a Lakeville native. “We went to Coach and asked if it was OK, and then got the team together to go over and play arcade games and do some bowling. It was fun.”
The outing was the first step in a two-week cleanse that included extra days off and rest for the Bulldogs as they prepared for the NCAA tournament. Their bumpy finish to the season didn’t affect their comfortable tournament status, but they felt the need to regroup before pursuing the goal of winning the program’s second national championship.
The postseason journey begins Friday against the Gophers in the Northeast Region’s first-round game more than 1,000 miles from Minnesota in Manchester, N.H.
“Having two weeks off, and last weekend off, was really huge for us,” Crandall said. “It’s the first time we came to the rink in almost two months and have more than 11 forwards and seven defenseman.
“And seeing that Gopher icon pop up [on the screen on selection Sunday] gave us even more motivation. … It’s always the most exciting game on the schedule just ’cause of the rivalry.”
The Bulldogs quickly forgot about the end of the regular season and remembered the 3-1 record they have against the Gophers this season. They lost the season-opener 4-3 on neutral ice to the Gophers, then won the next three meetings, including a stop in Mariucci Arena.
UMD also holds a 5-2-2 record against the Gophers over the past three seasons and won the only NCAA tournament game that the two teams have played.
“If you look at the last two or three years, we’ve had some big games against [the Gophers],” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “There are positives to playing a team you’re familiar with, and there are also negatives.
“But I think this group has been pretty relentless all year. Even early in the year. We found ourselves behind a lot, even in the first game [against the Gophers], and we’ve tried to bounce back and win a hockey game. … [Our guys] proved through the year what they can do.”
The Bulldogs have beaten eight of the 16 teams in this year’s tournament and spent most of the season ranked in college hockey’s top 10. They won 12 of 14 games from November to early January, then their lineup took a hit with several injuries, including to top contributors Alex Iafallo and Dominic Toninato, who both missed six games.
Now that most of the lineup is healthy, the only concern for the group is postseason inexperience. Only three Bulldogs (seniors Derik Johnson, Adam Krause and Crandall) have NCAA tournament experience.
“We’ve got an inexperienced group, so drawing Minnesota in the first round could be positive,” said Johnson, a Bloomington native. “It’s kind of been a struggle to get [the younger players] to play like they’ve proven they can, at times, but they seem to like to show up when we’re playing the main U.”