UMD Freshmen Pitching In
J.T. Brown, Aaron Crandall: Steady and Needed
by Justin Magill/CHN Writer
Every team in college hockey knows the importance of shutting down Minnesota-Duluth's top line of Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine.
However, they are not the only reason why the Bulldogs are one of the nation's best teams this season. Two freshmen have played important roles, too.
While standout defenseman Justin Faulk has received a lot of the accolades, and deservedly so, forward J.T. Brown and goalie Aaron Crandall have been two other freshmen imperative to Minnesota-Duluth's success — one helping to take pressure off one of the country's most dynamic scoring lines, and the other proving to be a steady head between the pipes.
"We are extremely grateful to have them on our team and contributing the way they are," Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. "You really can't ask for more out of them."
Minnesota-Duluth has proven it can score goals, but solid defense and goaltending will take you a long way.
In the first game of a road series at Wisconsin, Sandelin needed just that — some help in net from Crandall, who had to step in for teammate Kenny Reiter, who had a tough time against the Badgers. Crandall came in for the second period and earned an important overtime victory.
The next day he got the nod again and once again, delivered a solid 22-save performance in a 3-2 overtime win and a sweep at Madison.
"That was important for him," Sandelin said. "The Kohl Center is not an easy place for a freshman goalie to be in and the situation he was put in right away was not ideal. Aaron handled it very well and we got out of there with four points, which not a lot of teams will say they did this season."
Said Crandall, "For me personally it was great experience getting to play in one of the more hostile buildings in the WCHA and getting the job done picking up 4 points."
After Brady Hjelle decided to depart UMD after his sophomore season, Crandall has stepped into the 1A goaltending role with aplomb. He is 7-2-1 with a 2.42 goals against average, and .907 save percentage, all numbers that are slightly better than the heir apparent Reiter, a junior.
The competition for the starting bid is a healthy one that benefits the team.
"The best thing is Aaron and Kenny are good friends are really pull for one another when they are not playing," Sandelin said. "With the two being friends also means they will push each other to be better and that only helps us."
Not only benefiting from healthy competition, Crandall has gained more confidence in each game he has played in and it has not necessarily happened because of his own play.
"One major thing that has gone right for me is our team is scoring goals," he said. "When your team is providing offense in front of you it gives you confidence, and a little extra incentive to shut the door behind them. For me, when my teammates are playing well and making plays offensively it motivates me to make saves and shut down the other teams' offense."
Another helping hand has been Brown on the second line for the Bulldogs, with five goals and 11 assists on the year. Brown has hit somewhat of a wall, going without a point in the last six and without a goal in 11 straight games.
But playing with junior center Travis Oleksuk and senior wing Kyle Schmidt, he has been a contributor nonetheless.
"It definitely feels good to come in and help the team right away," Brown said. "My line mates Travis and Kyle have helped in making the transition into college hockey a bit easier."
There is not much of a drop off in terms of point production from Minnesota-Duluth's first line to second.
The Connollys and Fontaine already have eclipsed the 20-point mark already, but Brown and his linemates are right there to pick up right where they left off.
"Having more than just our top line being able to produce I think has helped the team a lot and makes it harder for other teams to match and key in on our best line with both Connollys and Fontaine," Brown said.
"To be able to take pressure off those guys and keep putting it on other teams has been a big difference," Sandelin added. "We have found a second line that can take a burden off not only our first line, but the rest of our team."
Closing in on the midway point of the season, Minnesota-Duluth is in a good spot, but it still has a daunting schedule ahead. It is vulnerable after losing defenseman Dylan Olsen to the pros in midseason.
Crandall and Brown have grown up quick for the Bulldogs, but will have to keep maturing as the season progresses.
"Every game getting later in the season has more importance," Brown said. "I feel that we have to continue to play with urgency, and can not get complacent with how we are doing and to press harder and continue to raise the bar."