The two-time defending national champions Minnesota Duluth opened up their season last weekend with a split at home against UMass Lowell. On Friday night, the Bulldogs fell behind 3-0 on a trio of second period goals, and could not quite make up the deficit in the third period, falling 3-2. They rebounded the next night with a 2-1 win.
I was able to watch Friday night’s game on television. Here’s what I saw out of the Bulldogs in their first game, and what I expect for the rest of the season.
Coming into the season, Minnesota Duluth probably had the fewest amount of question marks of any team in the country. You pretty much know what you’re going to get with them. It starts in goal with Hunter Shepard returning. Shepard is solid and consistent. Obviously they can win with him, since he’s won two of the tiny tournaments.
They also have the most talented blue line in the country—a huge advantage in college hockey, most especially in the Plinko of the single elimination postseason. It’s no small thing that they lost Mikey Anderson after last season, especially after how good Anderson was down the stretch for Minnesota Duluth last year. But they return a legitimate Hobey Baker candidate in Scott Perunovich, a defensive stalwart that will allow Perunovich to freelance as he pleases in Nick Wolff, and a guy that possibly be in the NHL right now in Dylan Samberg. Add in Louie Roehl, who is a tough defensive defensemen and Matt Anderson, who has developed to become a very good player as an upperclassmen and they’re really loaded.
By the same token, you mostly know what to expect from the forward group as well, although the outlook isn’t as pretty. The Bulldogs have a lot of smart, tough 200-foot players that will pressure the puck hard and score gritty goals. They don’t have a lot of exciting high-end forwards that are going to light up the scoreboard.
Their most exciting forward line on Friday night was rookie Quinn Olson paired with Noah and Jackson Cates. I’m on record as saying that this will be a big breakout year for Noah Cates, and playing alongside a talented player like Olson should help. Kobe Roth had a nice game on Friday night, and should be more of a contributor this year as well. On the whole, the forward group might be a tick better than last year’s group, but I’d be surprised if the results are significantly different.
So the path to success for Minnesota Duluth will remain the same as it has been for the past two seasons: play tight defensive hockey to keep games as low-scoring as possible and fiercely protect any lead they can get.
Things started down the right path on Friday night. The first period was a miserable slog. The two teams combined for only nine shots on goal in a scoreless period. But the problem with playing that style of hockey is that it is incredibly difficult to maintain over the long haul. In the second period, a couple really bad defensive zone turnovers ended up in their net, and they fell behind 3-0. UMass Lowell is no stranger to parking the bus in front of their own net themselves, and was willing to get outshot 17-1 in the final frame because they were able to clog things up enough to still come away with a 3-2 victory.
On Saturday, with a little extra motivation from the previous night’s loss, the Bulldogs were able to grind out a 2-1 win.
With so much the same for Minnesota Duluth, it would be foolish to predict anything other than similar results for the Bulldogs this season. Their low-scoring defensive style of play is probably too high-variance to hold up over the course of an entire season. Despite their postseason success, the Bulldogs have never come within six points of winning an NCHC regular season title, and it may be tough for them to do so this year. Then again, no team has done more to cement the college hockey regular season’s status as a series of meaningless exhibition games than the Bulldogs thanks to their postseason runs. And when they get into the postseason, they’ll be in really tight low-scoring games, with the added benefit of the confidence of having done it before, which should make them an incredibly tough team to beat.