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Talented Minnesota-Duluth finally breaks through

Allan Joseph | Wednesday, April 6, 2011

It happens every year. Stinging from one last defeat at the hands of a familiar opponent to end the season, disappointed in the previous year’s campaign and frustrated that its talent has not broken through, a team sets a goal — reach the Frozen Four. Rare is the team that can actually accomplish that goal, and rarer still do the stars line up as they have for Minnesota-Duluth. With the Frozen Four just a few hours down the road, in the very same arena that ended their season last year at the hands of North Dakota, the Bulldogs saw a golden opportunity and capitalized.

“It’s been a goal of this group since last year,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “It’s nice to be close to home.”

Their roster was chock-full of talent, and yet Minnesota-Duluth hadn’t found a way to get back to the Frozen Four — until this year. This year, the Bulldogs were finally able to earn those ever-elusive postseason wins.

“It’s definitely been a little while since we’ve been to the Frozen Four,” junior center Jack Connolly said. “We thought we had all the potential in the world this year. We’ve battled hard in the postseason and we’ve given ourselves an opportunity to make history in our program.”

As recently as two weeks ago, however, that history was in question. Facing Bemidji State in the opening game of the WCHA postseason tournament known as the Final Five (again at Xcel Energy Center), the Bulldogs dropped a 3-2 decision in overtime — and they had lost only once in 14 other overtime games all season long. Only the tight-knit nature of the team allowed Minnesota-Duluth to find its way back.

“I think the Bemidji game was a low point for our team. It did sting,” Sandelin said. “This is a pretty close group. They’ve never lost two games back-to-back all year — it shows the character of this team. They pull together when their backs are up against the wall.”

Nine days later, coming off a 2-0 victory over Union in the NCAA first round, the Bulldogs took down the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed Yale, earning their first trip to the Frozen Four since 2004, and the fourth in the program’s history. Yet their work was not done.

“Our guys were excited but not overly excited,” Sandelin said. “I thought it was a neat thing. They took it in stride. They were looking forward to not just getting there, but hopefully playing two games and having a chance to win a national championship.”

If Minnesota-Duluth does win its first-ever crown, it will be in large part due to its top attacking line, made up of Jack Connolly, junior wing Mike Connolly and senior wing Justin Fontaine. Together, the three are an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses.

“They’re one of the best lines in college hockey,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said.

The outcome of Thursday night’s game may well depend on how well Notre Dame can contain that top Bulldog line.

“We’re going to have to be really aware of when they’re on the ice and try to shut them down,” Irish senior wing Ryan Guentzel said. “They have a lot of guys with some talent, so we’re going to have to be fresh.”

For his part, Hobey Baker nominee Jack Connolly (who has notched 41 assists on the season) defers the credit to his linemates.

“It’s line chemistry,” he said. “I’m playing with two phenomenal linemates. They make my job a lot easier. The reason I got so many assists this year was in large part because of those guys.”

The Bulldogs have accomplished their goal of a home-state Frozen Four chance at redemption. Even when bemoaning a loss to Bemidji State, they knew their potential and realized it, leaving only one emotion for Thursday.

“We felt like we could go pretty deep into the postseason,” Jack Connolly said. “I think the guys are really excited.”