February 24, 2009 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Dog Gone Improvement

Scoring Is Back to Normal, and It May Get Minnesota-Duluth Back to the NCAAs

by Joshua Berhow/CHN Writer

To say Minnesota-Duluth’s offense struggled last season might be an understatement.

Andrew Carroll led the Bulldogs with eight goals and only two players had double-digit assists, with MacGregor Sharp and Matt McKnight netting 10 each. And Sharp, now a senior, led the Bulldogs’ offense with just 17 points, a number that 67 other WCHA players matched or surpassed that season.

In the final two months of last season the Bulldogs scored just 16 goals, averaging a dismal 1.33 per game in their final 12 WCHA games of the year, including their two playoff losses to Denver.

This season, however, six players have already surpassed Sharp’s 17 from last season, and what a difference a little offense can make.

“Last year, I’ve never been through anything like that as a player or coach,” said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin. “It happens and you just hope it doesn’t happen again.”

The Bulldogs have pushed their scoring average up by almost a goal this season, to 2.97, and own the top power play in the conference (21.4 percent). Although they’re still in the middle of the pack in terms of scoring offense, they’ve evened the playing field with the WCHA’s leading goaltender, Alex Stalock.

The Bulldogs’ success — which has helped them to fifth in the WCHA and in hosting position for the playoffs — hasn’t been by just one new face, either. But a big part of it has been by one name, but two players.

When Mike Connolly and Jack Connolly — both 19-year-olds — came to Duluth this fall they had plenty of credentials preceding them. Mike Connolly led the AJHL in points per game last season, and Jack Connolly was the USHL’s leading scorer and Junior A Player of the Year.

The pair hasn’t disappointed.

“We were hoping those guys could help offensively with what they could bring,” Sandelin said. “They’ve obviously done that.”

Mike Connolly, a wing, is third on the team with 27 points and third in goals (11) and assists (16). Jack Connolly, a center, has seven goals and 22 points, fifth-highest on the team, and owns a plus-eight rating.

The similarities are there. They’re both just 5-foot-8. They rank in the top eight in WCHA freshmen scoring. They have the same last name and were even born barely more than a month apart. But on the ice the two aren’t as similar.

“Mike’s a little more physical and probably better along tight areas and plays and wall,” Sandelin said. “Jack’s better in open ice and shifty and quicker. But they both have a real good hockey sense.”

In 32 games so far this season, the pair has never been penciled in next to each other on the line chart, but each play a big part in making the top two lines click for the Bulldogs. Justin Fontaine, who’s usually found on a line centered by Jack Connolly, leads the Bulldogs in points (13-26—39) in his sophomore campaign after a 12-point freshman season. Sharp’s also going to finish his senior season on a career-high point total, netting 31 points already with a team-leading 14 goals.

“We got a lot of skill guys on our team this year and all the guys are playing well together,” said Fontaine, who’s second in the WCHA in points. “We’ve kept lines the same so chemistry’s been there when last year it was a little different with bouncing lines around and seeing what’s working.”

But besides a more potent offense, a couple of fantastic freshmen, or even a 10-2-3 home-ice record, the Bulldogs direct their success to the crease.

Stalock, a junior who started every game last season, allowed two goals or less 23 times last year, with 12 of those games ending in a loss or a tie for the Bulldogs. It didn’t seem as if a 2.25 goals against average would translate into just 13 wins.

“[I think] he felt like he had to be perfect [last year],” Sandelin said. “And that’s a tough thing for any goaltender.”

But the WCHA’s leader in goals against average (2.16) and save percentage (.922) is finally getting some help.

“He’s been unbelievable for us this year and he’s the backbone of our team,” Jack Connolly said. “I think our offense starts with him. We owe a lot of our success to him but our offense has been pretty good this year, including the defense. Guys like Evan Oberg and Josh Meyers, they’re putting up good numbers, too. We’re getting scoring from a lot of different guys and I think that’s what’s good in the team.”

It’s not difficult to see that big seasons are happening all over the Bulldogs’ roster, whether it’s from a forward, a defenseman, a pair of forwards with the same name or a mainstay in the crease, one thing is for certain: They’re all pretty good when put together.

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