A Class Above
Minnesota-Duluth Has Its Own Talented Freshmen Too
by Dan Myers/CHN Staff
In the NCAA East Regional, the talk was about Union's and Yale's power plays, overlooking Minnesota-Duluth's. In the end, it was Duluth that piled up power-play goals, and sailed through to the Frozen Four.
Now, with a national semifinal looming against Notre Dame, the talk is of the Irish's vaunted freshman class. But again, Minnesota-Duluth has some youngsters of its own to tout.
On any given night, chances are good that either Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly or Justin Fontaine is going to score a goal. For much of the second half this season, Minnesota-Duluth's star-studded top unit has not only played together on the power play, but also during 5-on-5 play. They attract the attention of most teams' top defensive forwards as well as their top defensive pairing.
Shutting down that potent group is difficult enough. And when team's actually accomplish it, they are left with another thing to ponder … How are they going to slow freshman forward J.T. Brown?
Often times forgotten by teams so eager to slow the Bulldogs' top group, Brown has thrived on UMD's second line this season, finishing fourth on the team in points (34) and goals (15).
"I think it's worked out better for our whole line," Brown said of the decreased attention. "We have more than one line that can score, so I think its doing nothing but helping out our team."
Paired with junior Travis Oleksuk and senior Kyle Schmidt for virtually the entire season has helped Brown grow as a player. Playing with two experienced players has helped ease a transition many first year players find difficult.
"It's helped out a lot. Coming in right away, you don't know if the chemistry is going to be there or not," Brown said. "Playing together all this time has really helped us know where each of us are. We've figured out each other's tendencies."
It's fair to say having each other has been mutually beneficial. Brown was named to the All-WCHA Rookie Team while both Oleksuk and Schmidt established new career highs in points.
"At the beginning of the year, we had Schmidt and Oleksuk playing together and we were looking for someone to play with them," said Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin. "J.T. stood out in our first scrimmage, he was with them the next week and he's never been off there."
Along with the Connollys and Fontaine, Brown and Oleksuk have also played in every game this season for the Bulldogs, providing the team with two potent lines each and every night.
It's the depth up front which has helped propel the 'Dogs into this weekend's Frozen Four just down Interstate 35 in St. Paul. While UMD came up one game short two seasons ago, that group did not have as quality a second line to provide some punch when needed. About a third of this year's Bulldog team remains from that team a couple years ago, which has helped establish a path and a plan to victory each night.
"Each of us knows what we have to do in order to get a win," Brown said. "Our team is pretty unselfish, so none of us really matters how the game goes individually as long as the team gets a win. Our team has one common goal, and we're all working towards the same thing."
And with the spotlight so brightly shined on UMD's group of explosive scorers, freshman Justin Faulk has quietly put together one of the better first seasons in the league this year. Faulk finished fifth among all league freshmen in scoring with eight goals and 22 assists, good enough to make most national All-Rookie teams.
"I haven't seen a freshman come in and do some of the things he's done," Sandelin said. "The ability to control a game, his poise. He's very consistent, very smart.
"I mean what more can you say about the kid?" Sandelin asked rhetorically. "I just hope we get him for another year."
The national development program alum stepped right into the lineup this season and looked like a veteran, playing big minutes down the stretch. When first round draft pick Dylan Olsen left the team midseason to sign a professional contract, Faulk lost his defensive partner. He moved from right defense to left defense and began playing next to senior captain Mike Montgomery.
"We were all a little disappointed when Dylan left, he was a great player for us," Faulk said. "But we knew there were guys ready to step in and pick up some of that slack."
Faulk also said he came to Duluth well prepared to play in big games, especially the ones UMD has been in over the last month or so.
"Playing in Ann Arbor really helped me last season," Faulk said. "I think we played against 11 Division I teams last season, so it was nice being able to experience that. It definitely helped make that transition a little smoother."
Faulk said it also helped that virtually every defenseman from last season was back again in 2010-11, giving UMD an experienced group of blueliners — all of which, Faulk said, were willing to help him in any way possible.
"It's been great to see the way they all carry themselves and prepare for games," Faulk said. "They know how things are going to work, so it's been great to be able to look up to those guys."
Now so close to accomplishing their top goals, both Faulk and Brown know now is not the time to change what has worked for them so far this season.
"We need to just keep doing what we're doing," Faulk said. "Keep going 100 percent at all times and play smart, simple hockey."