Bulldogs Title Defense Comes Down to Final Series

By Max Smith
Photo: Derek Montgomery/For the News Tribune

At the start of the 2020-2021 College Hockey season, the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs went into the NCHC Omaha Pod as the third ranked team in all of NCAA Division 1 Hockey. UMD cruised through Nebraska-Omaha, a double against Miami and close 2-1 win over the fifth ranked University of Denver. The rarely outmatched yet never dominant Bulldogs then had a meeting with the then first ranked University of North Dakota.

Head Coach Scott Sandelin’s squad played a strong 65 minutes against the Fighting Hawks. UND was without star freshman defenseman and 4th overall NHL Draft pick Jake Sanderson. Sanderson was preparing for an ultimately successful World Junior run with Team USA. Although the game went down as a tie in the standings, Senior Forward and 7th Round Selection of the Minnesota Wild Nick Swaney potted the lone goal in the shootout past NoDak Goaltender Adam Scheel.

From the Top Down

Ten weeks later and the Bulldogs now have a 12-8-2 record after a 2-1 loss to three-win Colorado College. They also had a disappointing weekend in Kalamazoo. Minnesota Duluth could only muster up one goal on forty-three shots against Western Michigan University in game 1. The lone goal came from Junior Cole Koepke with two minutes left in the third. However at that point the Bulldogs already down 4-0.

The bleak reality now is that the stumbling Bulldogs need to win their last two games of the regular season against Saint Cloud to pass them for second place in the NCHC. First place has been clinched by North Dakota. They have a very slim margin for error considering Nebraska-Omaha is just one point behind in fourth place. Saint Cloud is also on a two-game win streak and faces the bottom two teams in Miami and Colorado College.

New Netminder

One of the many storylines coming into the season was the many high profile departures that the men’s hockey program suffered at the conclusion of the shortened 2019-2020 season. The departures include Hobey Baker winning defenseman Scott Perunovich, who signed an entry level Contract with Saint Louis. Center Justin Richards, son of middling Wild head coach Todd Richards, signed a free agent deal with the Rangers. Mobile defenseman Dylan Samberg, 2017 2nd round pick, signed with Winnipeg. Stay-at-home defenseman Nick Wolff graduated and signed a free agent contract with Boston. Workhorse goaltender Hunter Shepard graduated and signed an AHL contract with the Hershey Bears. When looking at the team through that lens it seems sort of obvious why they have had issues finding their footing. 

When it comes to goaltending, Minnesota Duluth has been uncharacteristically average. Since the 2014-2015 season, the Bulldogs starting goaltenders have been Kasimir Kaskisuo, Hunter Miska and Hunter Shepard. That’s six full seasons of top-notch goaltending. It seemed in Omaha that Sandelin had found his next stud in the net with Sophomore Ryan Fanti. Through the first 8 games Fanti posted a .916 save percentage. HE only had one game where he allowed more than three goals (four against Colorado College).

In the 9 games he’s played since, Fanti has posted a .896 save percentage. A major reason for this dip was the three straight games out of the pod against Saint Cloud. Those games dropped his save percentage from .916 to .903. Since then, he has a .913 save percentage with a full season save percentage of .895. It may have been a little early to crown Fanti as the next Shepard. But UMD’s struggles aren’t just about the changes at goalie. 

Defensive Departures

As a general rule of thumb, if one of Scott Scandelin’s teams looks like a high-powered offensive juggernaut the players are either really good or the opponent is really bad. Sandelin’s teams are first and foremost defensively sound. Duluth doesn’t get in back-and-forth high-scoring games very often. Opposing teams usually have problems gaining the zone with possession and getting high quality scoring chances. And while this is for the most part true for this season, what happens when the system stays the same but the top 6 loses 4 starters?

Last season the defense pairs featured Wolff and Perunovich on the top line. Samberg and current senior Louie Roehl were the second pair. Current senior Matt Anderson and graduate Jarod Hilderman were the third pair, with sophomore Jake Rosenbaum as the seventh man most nights. With Wolff, Perunovich, Samberg and Hildebrand all leaving, there was an entire top pair and half of the bottom four to replace.

Sandelin brought in Freshman Wyatt Kaiser, a smooth skating former Captain of the Andover Huskies, Mr. Hockey Runner Up and 3rd round pick to the hockey club on the coast of Lake Michigan. Kaiser takes the big step to top line minutes next to Louie Roehl who also gets a promotion. This pair has been fantastic. Wyatt Kaiser has shown that he is, while young, absolutely ready to log 20+ minutes a night against the NCHC’s best. For the second pair UMD has given Matt Anderson a promotion and next to him is last year’s oft-scratched 8th defenseman Hunter Lellig.

To be frank, this pair is a wash. Anderson and Lellig are both stay-at-home defensemen and neither of them really possess the kind of offensive instincts you would hope from a second pair. On the third pair is senior Cornell transfer Matt Cairns and either freshman Connor Kelley or freshman Darian Gotz, who have both played more like what you would expect from freshman defensemen than Kaiser.

Growing Pains

Cairns has done little to show that he is more than someone who can’t make the lineup every night with Cornell. On deeper UMD teams he likely would be a 7th defensemen at best. Jake Rosenbaum, the most experienced UMD defenseman of the three has seemingly found himself in Sandelin’s dog house. He has only dressed in eight games to this point and has been the 7th defenseman on every occasion.

So, what happened to the Bulldogs? One thing has been growing pains with young defensemen throughout the lineup. The Bulldogs have also relied heavily on a young goaltender still finding his feet in College Hockey’s most competitive conference. Unless the team can somehow put together consistent and convincing performances against Saint Cloud in their final two games, it doesn’t seem to me that the Bulldogs will be Back to Back to Back NCAA Champions.