Minnesota-Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin
knew it would be a challenge for his team coming into the 2011-12 season as defending national champions, and that's why he was already cautioning his players for what would lie ahead before they even left for home for the summer.
On the plus side, the Bulldogs only lost three key cogs to their lineup in Mike Connolly
, Justin Fontaine
and Justin Faulk
, so with the core together it was a matter of having the right offseason approach and mental fortitude entering this season.
After some difficult losses to start the season 1-3, the defending champs have righted the ship. Maintaining the approach and system they entered the season with and won a national title with last spring, they enter a two-game weekend set with Minnesota 7-3-2 overall and 5-2-1 in the WCHA.
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"It certainly was a concern when they went home for the summer," Sandelin told NHL.com recently when asked about a possible letdown. "We wanted to make sure they came back with the right attitude. We wanted to make sure they knew they had to work even harder with that label now and teams gunning for us even more. I thought our guys did a pretty good job of that. We entered the summer not losing more than two guys. There was some talk late in the year that we could lose a couple of players early besides Connolly and Faulk. But once we got through that we got the message to our guys, and I think for the most part they came back and were in pretty good shape and had the right attitude."
After beating Notre Dame 4-3 in the season opener, the Bulldogs struggled a bit, losing their next three games with a 5-3 loss to Notre Dame and then two 5-4 losses -- one in overtime -- to in-state rival Minnesota. But while some were pointing to a possible championship hangover, Sandelin didn't see that at all. He saw a team that came in prepared and simply lost three hard-fought battles against two ranked and formidable clubs. As far as he was concerned, his team deserved points in the two games with the Gophers and simply needed to improve on some areas of their game.
"It certainly helps you get right into it when you start the year against Notre Dame and Minnesota, right off the bat that's a huge challenge," Sandelin said. "That helps you focus right away. I actually thought in those four games, our team played pretty well. I thought our goaltending was a little off. Obviously, when we were 1-3 to start the season, it was disappointing to not get points out of the Minnesota series because I thought we deserved some and played them tough scoring eight goals and outshooting them.
"So when I looked at the big picture, I saw a lot of good things and just tried to focus on those moving forward. That's why I just made sure the guys were staying positive and not pressing and realizing that they weren't necessarily playing bad but just weren't getting the wins. As long as they kept pushing they would, and we did by focusing on a few things and staying upbeat."
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As for the struggles between the pipes that Sandelin referenced, senior Kenny Reiter, who was stellar last season with a 16-7-5 record, 2.30 goals-against average and .914 save percentage, has rounded into form by going 6-0-2 in the team's last eight games. He now has a 2.05 GAA with a .923 save percentage, and has equaled his shutout total of last season with three.
"There's no question that Kenny has played extremely well for us," Sandelin said. "I chatted with both our goalies after the first four games and we talked about having an .822 save percentage combined was not going to win us a lot of games, so they had to work a little bit harder and we'll try and do our part in front of them.
"It wasn't to pick on them, but Kenny was in the net for us when we won and Aaron Crandall
won 10 games for us as a freshman, so we know they're capable of playing better and giving up five goals wasn't by any means all their fault. But they knew they could play better and Kenny has responded with a great run here and that's given us a spark, no question. Good teams need good goaltending and he's provided us with outstanding goaltending in the last month."
Another key part of the Bulldogs' quick recovery from that 1-3 start has been the play and leadership of captain Jack Connolly
, who has picked his game up both on and off the ice.
"I think he's done great," Sandelin said. "I mean, when you lose your two linemates of the last two years in Mike Connolly
and Justin Fontaine
, I don't know if you can ever develop the chemistry that those three had, but we felt we had some guys coming in and coming back that we could certainly develop and find a good line for him.
"I think it's switched around a bit here, but I think he has gotten better as the season has gone on and the last four or five games, he's been outstanding. He's been our best player, and even early on where from our eyes he didn't maybe play up to where he can be, he's still getting a point a game. That's just the kind of player he is. He has adapted and he's shown a lot of maturity and leadership, and that's why he is our captain."
So it appears Minnesota-Duluth has settled into its role as defending champions and is ready to challenge for the crown again. They realize they lost some important points in that 1-3 start, but also feel they were better than that start indicated and thankfully never pressed the panic button.
"The tough thing is though because our season isn't as long as the NHL, you need to get points every weekend," Sandelin said. "The most important thing, then, is trying to look at big picture, and it's still early. We don't want to press the panic button, but we knew we had to translate that hard work and what I felt was solid play into wins, because when it comes down to it, it's about wins and losses. But like I said, we liked a lot of things we saw and that made it easier to even turn it up a notch more and be focused on a few corrections to our games and keeping it simple."