March 27, 2011 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Secrets of Success

Minnesota-Duluth's Well-Rounded Effort Earns It a Frozen Four Trip

by Matthew Conyers/CHN Staff Writer

Justin Faulk was part of a defense that allowed no even-strength goals in the Regional. (photo: Brad Pettengill)

Justin Faulk was part of a defense that allowed no even-strength goals in the Regional. (photo: Brad Pettengill)

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Sitting at the dais, junior winger Jack Connolly let the smallest of smirks cross his face before delivering the joke.

“Blondes have more fun don’t they?” Connolly said Saturday after Minnesota-Duluth had only 25 minutes earlier capped off a 5-3 victory over Yale in the East Regional Final at Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard.

In Bridgeport, Connolly’s logic was certainly true.

The Bulldogs won two straight against the best two ECAC teams — Yale and Union — to advance to their first Frozen Four since 2004 and fourth trip as a program. And they did it, largely thanks to special teams work. Minnesota-Duluth (24-10-6) scored all but one of its seven total goals on the weekend on specials teams — five power-play goals and one shorthanded.

“It’s been a goal for our program to have an opportunity to get back to the Frozen Four,” Minnesota-Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin said. “It’s been a goal for these guys since last year when we didn’t get in the tournament.”

Minnesota-Duluth scored shorthanded for the only goal of the first period. After getting a soft goal and another power-play goal in the second, UMD saw Yale get a shift in momentum with a PPG of its own. But with the score 3-1, just eight seconds later, Yale's goal scorer — and leading goal scorer on the season — Brian O'Neill was called for a 5-minute major penalty for contact to the head, and was also ejected.

The Bulldogs rolled from there, getting two more power-play goals.

But to look just at the special teams work and the steady play of Kenny Reiter, who had 30 saves against Yale, is to miss the bigger point.

Minnesota-Duluth has been having fun all season — not just this weekend when they decided to bleach their hair blonde for the tournament.

Just look at its schedule. Minnesota-Duluth has never lost back-to-back games.

And it won’t either.

“It’s pretty impressive,” Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. “It tells you a lot about the character of the team.”

Praised for its talented first line of Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine, Minnesota-Duluth has proven to be masters in the art of deception. Yes, the top line is good — it is actually really good with more points than any other line this season.

But Minnesota-Duluth also showed this weekend that is more of a well-rounded unit that is sparked by the play of Connolly, Connolly and Fontaine — the best law firm name north of St. Paul.

“I told our guys there were a lot of people that didn’t think we were going to get to the Final Five,” Sandelin said. “We stumbled down the stretch. I always use the terms, we weren’t great, we weren’t terrible, we were in between.”

The season started great for Minnesota-Duluth as it got out to a 12-2-1 start by Dec. 4. Everything seemed to be fine.

And it was.

Still, the spotlight turned elsewhere, whether it was due to the sudden mid-season departure of standout junior defenseman Dylan Olsen or because of new, more exciting storylines out East in Yale or Boston College.

The rough patches only came later.

Minnesota-Duluth went 6-1 in January but then went 4-5-3 before its date at the East Regional.

It certainly wasn’t the most noteworthy of stretches. But Minnesota-Duluth never stopped believing it had the right pieces.

“It’s a fine line between winning and losing,” Sandelin said. “We won a lot of games early in overtime. We won a lot of tight games. We showed a lot of resiliency in those games. I think that helps when you get to this point.”

So it stuck to its systems and came into Bridgeport not just with new hairstyles but more than confident for the path that stood ahead.

The reward for their commitment? A trip home for the Frozen Four in St. Paul and no gophers in sight.

That’s something not just blondes can enjoy.

“Anytime we’re ahead of the Gophers it's a good thing for us,” Jack Connolly said. "But there’s a lot of good teams in Minnesota. We’re fortunate to be there and have the support of the state and we’ll look to make the most of it. We’re definitely excited and you have to make the most of these opportunities.”

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