November 23, 2010 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Team of the Week: Minnesota-Duluth

Nation's top-ranked team off to best start in school history.

by Dan Myers/CHN Staff

Justin Fontaine has 17 points so far this season, playing on the top line.

Justin Fontaine has 17 points so far this season, playing on the top line.

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Overtime has been prime time for Minnesota-Duluth — the nation's No. 1 squad for the second straight week.

Friday night, the Bulldogs erased a two goal deficit in the second period and overcame a late Wisconsin goal in regulation to steal a 6-5 win in overtime. They followed it up with another win in the extra frame Saturday, this time, a much more steady 3-2 victory.

In Saturday's game, the Bulldogs never trailed, opening up a 1-0 lead in the second period and a 2-1 lead in the third before Jack Connolly's game winner just over a minute into overtime.

"I told [Duluth News Tribune beat writer] Kevin Pates that it just seems like an extra minute after a TV timeout," Sandelin said. "We've been in so many of those games already, I think it's some good fortune and some puck luck. So far it just seems like those things have bounced our way."

The win in game two was the Bulldogs' fifth in bonus hockey this season — a mark which already has tied the school record. More importantly, the wins secured the Bulldogs' first sweep ever at the Kohl Center and the first in Madison since Brett Hull scored hat tricks on consecutive nights back in February of 1985.

"I didn't even know about that until after when someone brought that up," Sandelin said." Certainly it's a tough place to win and we knew going in there with the weekend they had before against North Dakota that they were going to be ready and focused on what they needed to do."

Sitting atop the WCHA standings at 11-1-2 overall and 8-1-1 in conference play, UMD is off to its best start in school history. Last week, it captured the top spot in the polls for the first time since 2004, when it last went to the Frozen Four.

"This group had higher expectations coming into the year," Sandelin said. "We had some guys that could have gone on an signed [NHL deals] but chose to come back. Guys have been real disappointed with how the last couple of seasons have ended and I think that motivated them to have good summers."

Two years ago, the Bulldogs played the part of "The Little Engine that Could" in becoming the first team to win three games at the WCHA Final Five, then advancing to the NCAA West Regional final, where they lost to Miami. Less than 24 months later, the Bulldogs are the freight train nobody wants to talk about. With North Dakota considered by many the runaway favorites in the league, Dean Blais and Nebraska-Omaha off to a surprising start and Bemidji State struggling in its first WCHA campaign, the Bulldogs' run to the top has been relatively quiet.

Perhaps, not anymore.

"I think it all goes back to that disappointment," Sandelin said. "I know we were disappointed a couple years ago after that Miami game and the guys really were last year not getting a bid. You don't know every year how your team chemistry is going to be, but this year right from the get-go, it's been pretty good."

All in all, it's been a total team effort which has lifted UMD to the top. The Connolly boys, Jack and Mike, are off to fantastic starts (both are atop the league in points with 20), as is senior Justin Fontaine (fifth with 17).

But perhaps the most surprising name, at least to those not around the North Shore, is the emergence of junior center Travis Oleksuk. His game winner Friday in Madison was his second goal of the night and ninth of the season. His 16 points is tied for seventh in the WCHA, putting him on pace for a new career high in both goals and assists. After scoring just five points as a freshman, Oleksuk tallied 10 goals and 14 assists last season as a sophomore. It's that kind of development that has helped Oleksuk fill the skates of Rob Bordson, who signed an NHL deal following last season.

"His first year, like a lot of kids, I think he thought it was going to be a little bit easier," Sandelin said. "The last couple of years, he's worked harder in the offseason, he's come in in better shape and I think that's led to better results. I think him knowing too, that he was going to play an important role for us on that second line behind Connolly, how important it was for him to come in and be ready.

"Truthfully, he's been one of our best players."

And while offense was expected from the upperclassmen, freshman J.T. Brown has stepped right into the lineup and looked like a seasoned vet. With five goals and 10 assists already, Brown has put up numbers most freshmen would be pleased with over an entire season. And while keeping his point-per-game pace going is probably unrealistic, Brown has found a home next to Oleksuk on UMD's second line.

But it's not just up front where the Bulldogs are getting help. On the blueline, freshman Justin Faulk has jumped in and provided the 'Dogs with a boost, scoring four goals and adding seven helpers. His defensive partner, sophomore Dylan Olsen also has 11 points. And perhaps more importantly, defensive stalwarts Mike Montgomery and Brady Lamb have played well too. While the team ranks second in the league in scoring offense, the Bulldogs also rank second in scoring defense.

"We know they're probably not going to be around very long," Sandelin said of Olsen and Faulk. "I think Dylan has bounced back nicely this year. He struggled a bit last season at times. Justin has come in after a great career with the Development Program and stepped right in. He doesn't look like a freshman."

In net, Kenny Reiter was expected to carry the mail most of the season, but has struggled early on. Enter sophomore Aaron Crandall, who is 6-1 this season and leads the league with a 1.90 goals against average. After Reiter was pulled Friday in Madison after a shaky first period, Crandall allowed two goals over the final 40-plus minutes to gain the win over the team his once committed to. Crandall capped the sweep with a 22 save effort Saturday.

"A lot of people thought that was going to be a weak spot for us this season," Sandelin said. "[Crandall] needed to wait a couple of games, Reiter started the first three, but since that point, he's really taken advantage. They've both made some key stops where games have been 2-2 and allowed us to win in overtime."

Leading the WCHA by just two points over Denver, UMD has this weekend off before a chance to put some room between themselves and the Pioneers next weekend when DU heads to Duluth. The games will mark the final games at the DECC before the team opens Amsoil Arena on Dec. 30.

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