A lot was made of how much talent Minnesota Duluth lost off of last year’s national tournament runner-ups. That was no doubt true. Six players from last year’s team signed NHL contracts, with four of them already playing in the NHL.
But it’s not that much of a surprise to see the Bulldogs back in the Frozen Four this year. What this year’s team lacked in experience, they made up for with an almost unprecedented level of talent this year. Five players off this team were selected to be part of the US World Juniors team. They may have had to rebuild their defense, but they did so with two players taken in the top half of last summer’s NHL Draft, and a tiny wizard that finished the year as the team’s leading scorer. There are worse positions to be in.
They were the last at-large team to get into the tournament, but this is a tournament where the last team in has as good of a chance as the best team in the country. The Bulldogs are returning to the site of their school’s greatest triumph. There’s a lot lining up for them, and they’ve got a great shot at winning this whole thing again.
Here is Minnesota Duluth’s projected line chart. Top-50 NHL prospects are bolded. Other potential NHL prospects are in italics.
27 Tufte 25 Krieger 13 J. Anderson
20 Kuhlman 22 Thomas 23 Swaney
17 Young 19 Richards 39 Mackay
10 Roth 26 Miller 16 Exell
5 Wolff 7 Perunovich
4 Samberg 3 Mi. Anderson
21 Ma. Anderson 6 Roehl
There’s a lot of balance to these forward lines, which is a polite way of saying they didn’t have a forward come close to a point-per-game this season. The top line is their most offensively gifted line, but Riley Tufte, a first round NHL draft pick, and Peter Krieger, a transfer who earned his freedom from Alaska, can be maddeningly inconsistent. Anderson is the ultimate complementary player, but his skating keeps him from generating many chances on his own. If that line is clicking, Minnesota Duluth is going to be very tough to beat.
On the second line, senior captain Karson Kuhlman is the heart-and-soul of their team. He’s not much of a pro prospect due to his size, but is just a tremendous college hockey player. He’ll maybe be the fastest player on the ice this weekend, and the tenacity he plays with puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses. Swaney is a late round NHL draft pick with some sneaky offensive ability. Centering that line is Jared Thomas, a reliable, responsible player that would be a 20-goal scorer is he had even a little bit of finishing ability.
The Bulldogs get a little bit of offense from their lower two lines, but outside of junior Parker Mackay, who has developed into a nice player, if any of the bottom six factors into the games this weekend, it will be a surprise.
The blue line is where Minnesota Duluth really shines. They’re led by freshman Scott Perunovich, who has taken his game to another level since returning from the World Juniors this winter. He’s a smaller defender, but a good skater with excellent quickness and agility and amazing poise with the puck. UMD will cut a lot of minutes from their third pairing and give the extra to Perunovich. Dylan Wolff is a big defender that is going to play a very simple game and provide the insurance for Perunovich to freelance as he sees fit.
Dylan Samberg is a pure athlete with an incredibly high ceiling. He has only gotten better as the year has gone on. Mikey Anderson is rock solid for a freshman defenseman.
I’ve said the team with the best blue line usually wins this thing, and still believe that is Notre Dame. But I love the trio of Perunovich, Samberg, and Anderson, and think there’s a strong case for UMD’s blue line being the best in the tournament.
Keys to the Weekend:
1. Play a full 60 minutes
To put it kindly, it’s been a while since you could really say UMD played a solid, full game. They got off to a horrific first 20 minutes against Minnesota State that they almost weren’t able to dig their way out of. They had a great start against Air Force, and then spent the last two periods being very thankful they drew Air Force in the national quarterfinal. The weekend prior to that was a complete disaster. It’s unlikely they’ll be able to get away with that again against some very good teams this weekend.
2. Win battles in the tough areas
When Minnesota Duluth isn’t playing at their best, they have the tendency to work too much on the outside and not get the puck into tough areas in front of the net for scoring chances. If they’re content to just take what the Ohio State defense gives them, it could very easily be a night where UMD puts 30 shots on goal and only ends up with one goal on the scoreboard. It won’t be easy, but they’ve got to commit to getting into tough areas if they’re going to crack Ohio State’s defense.
3. Stay lucky, I guess?
The Bulldogs have won their last seven NCAA tournament games that have gone to overtime, including the national title game last time it was played in St. Paul. That’s an insane streak that has to end at some point, though I’d be wary of betting against it at this point.