UMD looks for home-state advantage
The last time the NCAA hockey championship was held in the State of Hockey, hometown Minnesota skated off with the 2002 national crown, which was the school's fourth championship and first since 1979.
When the puck drops for the 2011 Frozen Four on Thursday evening at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, a maroon and gold University of Minnesota squad will again be on the ice.
But the Gophers will be nowhere to be found.
Instead, the Bulldogs from Minnesota Duluth will take center stage against Notre Dame (25-13-5) in the first national semifinal (ESPN2HD, 5 p.m. ET) and enjoy every minute of stealing the spotlight from their big brothers in their own backyard.
"Any time we're ahead of the Gophers is a good thing for us," junior left wing Mike Connolly said. "You know there are a lot of good teams in Minnesota and we're fortunate enough to be there. You have to make the most of these opportunities."
Some might say that UMD (24-10-6) has already made the most of the opportunity by simply advancing to the Frozen Four for the fourth time in school history and enjoying all of the attention that goes along with it.
After all, in name value the Bulldogs aren't exactly on the same level as Notre Dame -- a brand-name school if there ever was one, even if the Irish are still establishing their hockey pedigree. And then there is the second semifinal matchup Thursday night (ESPN2HD, 8:30 p.m. ET) between hockey royalty Michigan (nine national titles) and North Dakota (seven titles).
But UMD coach Scott Sandelin isn't willing to settle for simply playing hockey in April.
"I told our guys there were a lot of people that didn't think we were going to get to the [WCHA] Final Five," Sandelin said after the Bulldogs beat No. 1 overall seed Yale 5-3 to win the NCAA East Regional on March 26. "We stumbled down the stretch. We weren't great but we weren't terrible; we were somewhere in between.
"So [the players] know this is great but they know this isn't the end. We're going there to win. I want them to focus on that and understand they are there for a reason. They've got a chance to win the whole thing."
Something that's never been done by a Bulldogs club.
UMD reached the 1984 title game but lost to Bowling Green in a four-overtime epic played at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, N.Y. And the 1985 and 2004 Frozen Four appearances resulted in semifinal losses.
Just because the Bulldogs don't have any national title hardware back in Duluth doesn't mean the UMD program doesn't have a rich history. No school has produced more Hobey Baker Memorial Award winners than Duluth (although the Gophers have four Hobeys too), and that doesn't even include the most famous player to skate on the shores of Lake Superior -- Hockey Hall of Famer Brett Hull.
This season UMD jumped out to a white-hot start and by the end of November the Bulldogs were 11-1-2 and ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Then came a December to mis-remember.
The Bulldogs went just 1-3-1, and lost one of their top players when sophomore defenseman Dylan Olsen left to play for Canada at the World Junior Championships in Buffalo, N.Y., and never returned. The first-round draft pick signed a contract with the Chicago Blackhawks, and the month was capped off by a 5-0 home shutout loss to North Dakota on the night UMD opened its spectacular new Amsoil Arena.
"In the first half maybe our guys thought it was going to be easy," Sandelin said. "I think it's good to have some struggles. We bounced back and it shows the kind of character these guys have."
UMD played 9-5-3 hockey the rest of the regular season but the Bulldogs have found a bit of a groove -- not to mention a unique style -- since the playoffs have started.
Prior to the WCHA tournament, the seniors decided on a team unity exercise for the postseason run. Many teams grow playoff beards and the Bulldogs are no exception. Two years ago they went with a buzz-cut look. This year, the players dyed each other's hair blond and the look is as bad as you might imagine. The lone holdout is senior left wing Kyle Schmidt, who is getting married this spring; let's just say the idea wasn't a big hit with his fiancée.
Whatever the reason, the Bulldogs are playing inspired hockey since the second season started. They swept St. Cloud State to open conference tournament play before losing to Bemidji State in overtime (3-2) at the Xcel Energy Center in the WCHA Final Five.
When the NCAA pairings were announced on March 20, the Bulldogs were installed as a No. 3 seed and got shipped to the East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn. Their national tournament opener saw them stifle ECAC regular-season champion Union en route to a 2-0 win. Then UMD converted some fortuitous power-play situations on its way past ECAC tournament winner Yale to advance to St. Paul.
In the two wins the Bulldogs were an impressive 29.4 percent (5-for-17) with the man advantage, and despite playing two of the nation's best power-play teams, UMD managed to erase 14 of 17 opportunities on the penalty kill.
"I thought coming into this tournament nobody gave us a lot of credit," Sandelin said after the Yale win. "Our guys showed a lot of resiliency through this [regional] and I'm glad we got through a couple of tough wins against two very good hockey teams."
The key for UMD in the postseason -- besides the strong special-teams play -- has been a combination of good goaltending from Kenny Reiter and the continued production from a very special top line.
The junior netminder has good but not great numbers over the entire season with a 14-7-5 record to go along with a 2.29 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. His numbers in the NCAA tournament are an impressive 2-0, 1.50, .954.
"He's a very mature goaltender and I love his competitiveness," Sandelin said. "I thought he could go in there and play well for us and getting some early saves against Union on their power play was a huge boost for him and our team."
Another boost has come from the potent and consistent top line of left wing Mike Connolly, center Jack Connolly and right wing Justin Fontaine.
The trio has combined for 66 goals and 166 points this season.
"We have a lot of fun playing with each other," Mike Connolly said. "It's our second year in a row together and Coach has given us the opportunity to be creative out there."
Mike Connolly is UMD's leading goal scorer with 27, and he also has 26 assists after registering three helpers in the Yale win. Fontaine is second in goals with 22 to go along with 33 assists.
And Jack Connolly is the pass-first, shoot-second center who is No. 2 in the nation with 41 assists. Those numbers were good enough to get the Duluth native named one of the 10 Hobey Baker finalists.
"We know where each other is at every part of the ice and I think we feed well off each other," Jack Connolly said. "It's definitely easier playing with two guys who can put the puck in the net. I just try to do my job and find the open man and then they do their part and put it in the net."
After a nearly two-week break between the regionals and the Frozen Four, the Bulldogs are more than ready to make the two-hour trip down I-35 from Duluth to St. Paul. And they are hoping that as the only home-state entry in the four-team tournament they'll enjoy the support of the rest of the state during their run at a national title.
There are 12 Minnesotans who are expected to dress for UMD in Thursday's game against Notre Dame, including three who are hometown Duluth boys.
"It was a dream of mine to play for my hometown and play for the Bulldogs," Jack Connolly said. "We thought we had all the potential in the world with this team. It's been a little up and down this year but we've battled hard in the postseason here and we've given ourselves an opportunity to try and make history in our program."
And all across the State of Hockey.
David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.