Team of the Week: Minnesota-Duluth
by Dan Myers/CHN Staff
DULUTH, Minn. During last season's national championship game against Michigan, Minnesota-Duluth did something nobody ever thought possible: For one night only, they united Minnesota fans and North Dakota fans under one banner — a Bulldog one.
This season, they're re-writing the history books again, as the Bulldogs, following a sweep last weekend at Western Michigan, have pushed their school record unbeaten streak to 16 games.
Heck, not even a long Christmas break could halt their unbeaten streak.
"Going into Western, I wasn't really sure," said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. "You certainly hope you come back and your guys are ready to go. But we played really well, against a really good team. I thought it was a very good weekend. It was a great way to start."
But it's not just the wins that have been impressive for UMD — it's how the 'Dogs are doing it; 10 of the 16 games have been played on the road, including series at two of the toughest places to win in the WCHA, Magness Arena and the Kohl Center. Now mid-January, Duluth is still undefeated on the road this season.
That experience is part of the reason why the Bulldogs didn't panic when they fell behind both nights at Lawson Arena — generally regarded as one of the toughest spots in the CCHA.
Moreover, the Bulldogs look like the defending national champions. There is never any panic in a game, never any question. Now, it seems as though gaining a win or a tie is just inevitable.
"It's one of the similarities that this team is starting to show with last year's team," Sandelin said. "They had that ability that, if we got down, they just stayed with it and tried to get back and win a hockey game. This past weekend was no different.
"We've had some good third periods through this run. We've won different ways, we've been behind. I don't know the exact number, but we've been behind one or two goals during this streak on a number of occasions and we've been able to come back and win or tie the game. Our guys just always believe they can come back and win."
Perhaps even more impressive is the fact the Bulldogs are doing this, first, with the giant target on their backs all defending champs wear the following season, and second, with the huge talent that left the North Shore following last season's title run.
Don't forget, UMD is without high scoring forwards Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine, blue chip defenseman Justin Faulk, the ever-steady Mike Montgomery and championship game hero Kyle Schmidt, who have all either graduated or left school early.
That put more of the onus this season on senior forwards Jack Connolly and Travis Oleksuk. Needless to say, both have answered — especially Connolly. The Duluth native is the nation's leading scorer, having posted 12 goals and 21 assists just past the season's midpoint and has to be considered one of favorites for the Hobey Baker Award.
Oleksuk's 15 goals leads the team and is third-best in the WCHA.
"Our older guys, our juniors and seniors, they've been able to win a Final Five the hard way," Sandelin said. "They won a NCAA Tournament the hard way, I think some people wrote us off. I think our older guys have learned some things and had some success and that's helped in getting our guys to believe and getting our younger guys to understand. I think that has been a critical component."
But as the Bulldogs always do, they've found production from a guy who flew under the radar the year before. Two years ago it was Rob Bordson, who scored 40 points one season after scoring 40 less than that. Last season, it was Oleksuk and Schmidt who saw big jumps in their point totals from the year before. This season, it's junior forward Mike Seidel, who has already scored three more points this season than he did all of last year.
Along with Connolly, it's those kind of sustained jumps that have turned UMD from a bottom-half team in the WCHA just a few years ago into one of the nation's elite programs.
"All those guys have had a history of scoring," Sandelin said. "Look at Mike; he was a 50-point guy in Cedar Rapids. Last season, he was a third line guy for us. This year he's been a first or second line guy for us and he's been getting some time on the power play. Playing with Jack always helps too."
Another key to Duluth's run has come in goal, where senior Kenny Reiter — maligned heading into the Frozen Four last season as perhaps the team's weak link — has recovered from a rough start to the year to become one of the league's most reliable netminders.
Reiter allowed five goals on just 16 shots against Minnesota Oct. 15, the last time the Bulldogs lost a game. It capped a weekend sweep for the rival Gophers, who also scored five on Reiter the night before. Duluth stood at 1-3-0 after that weekend, but haven't looked back since. Reiter has started every game during the unbeaten streak and hasn't allowed more than three in a game since those games in mid-October.
"Even [when we were 1-3] I thought we were playing pretty well," Sandelin said. "Our guys stuck with it and we found some scoring. Kenny has played great."