Hunter Shepard is not one to give rah-rah speeches. His leadership style is more by example than by voice. And you won’t find the Minnesota Duluth goaltender rushing to the nearest microphone after a game.
Instead, Shepard follows the advice of Teddy Roosevelt, with a hockey twist: “Speak softly and carry a big goalie stick.”
That approach has served Shepard and the Bulldogs well in defense of their NCAA championship entering Thursday’s semifinal against Providence in the Frozen Four in Buffalo, N.Y. Shepard’s play is a big reason why UMD could become the first repeat champion since Denver in 2004 and ’05.
Minnesota Duluth (27-11-2) has won its past six NCAA tournament games, with Shepard starting each one and posting a 1.13 goals-against average with a .944 save percentage. If you add the Bulldogs’ NCHC tournament championship run last month in St. Paul, Shepard is on 10-0 postseason streak, giving up only 11 goals in that span.
“We have a lot of confidence and we know we’re not giving up a lot of opportunities,” Shepard, a junior from Cohasset, Minn., said in his soft-spoken manner. “When you keep the score low, we’re going to be in most games.”
The Bulldogs, who play Providence at 4 p.m. today (ESPN2), are comfortable playing close games, especially at tournament time. Shepard backstopped them to the 2018 NCAA title by winning four straight one-goal games. This year, UMD survived Bowling Green 2-1 in OT of the Midwest Region opener and edged Quinnipiac 3-1 (with an empty-net goal) to earn the Frozen Four berth.
“He’s been a brick wall back there,” Bulldogs captain Parker Mackay said of Shepard, one of five finalists for the Mike Richter Award given to the nation’s top goalie. “A lot of people have said it, and I can say it: He’s our most valuable player, no question.”
Developing in Bismarck
Shepard’s route to Minnesota Duluth didn’t follow a direct path. After a standout high school career at Grand Rapids in which he won the Frank Brimsek Award as Minnesota’s top senior goalie in 2013-14, Shepard didn’t have colleges beating down his door. He ended up with the Bismarck Bobcats of the North American Hockey League, where he came under the tutelage of coach Layne Sedevie, a former Bemidji State goalie who has sent 13 Bobcats goalies to Division I programs.
In his 2014-15 NAHL debut, Shepard was shelled, giving up seven goals on 25 shots. That didn’t deter Sedevie.
“You can watch him play one time and tell that his athletic ability is through the roof with his ability to make big saves, timely saves and key saves,” Sedevie said of the 6-1, 210-pounder. “His first year, he was a bit all over the place and eager to make movements. Once he refined that in the second half, he took over the job for us.”
Shepard’s rookie stats weren’t great: 14-14-1 with a 3.28 GAA and .878 save percentage. The next season, however, he was 34-11-3 with a 1.90 GAA and .926 save percentage. The Bobcats made it to the NAHL semifinals, and Shepard was named league goalie of the year.
“If I wouldn’t have ended up going there,” he said, “I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Sedevie cautioned not to underestimate Shepard because of his quiet nature.
“If you watch him play, there’s a bit of cockiness and arrogance, which is good in a goaltender,” Sedevie said. “He’s very confident in himself.”
Mackay agreed: “Any time he does speak up in that locker room, all 27 heads are turned his way.”
Landing at Duluth
Despite his standout play in Bismarck, Shepard wasn’t sure where he’d end up in college until UMD sophomore goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo left in May 2016 to sign a pro contract. “It was a last-second thing,” Shepard said.
He spent his freshman season at UMD as backup to Hunter Miska, who helped the Bulldogs to an NCAA runner-up finish in 2017. Last season, Shepard seized the starting job and hasn’t let go, starting a school-record 79 games in a row.
“He’s going to give you his best every night. He’s a special goaltender,” said former St. Cloud State forward Ryan Poehling, who had a hat trick in his NHL debut with the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday but didn’t get a puck past Shepard this season. “He gives Duluth a chance night in and night out.”
On Thursday, Shepard will try to keep UMD’s run going and move the Bulldogs one step closer to a repeat title.
“I knew if I got the chance to play, that would be my best opportunity to possibly win a national championship,” he said quietly but with a tone confident enough to make it two.