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Top-ranked Minnesota-Duluth hoping to make history

by James Murphy
Minnesota-Duluth last played for an NCAA championship in 1984, losing a 5-4 four-overtime heartbreaker in what remains the longest championship game in NCAA history. The following season, the Bulldogs lost in overtime in the Frozen Four semifinals to RPI, and since then has made the Frozen Four just once, losing to Denver in 2004.

Despite sending numerous players to the NHL and having nine seasons of at least 20 wins, Minnesota-Duluth has yet to win an NCAA title.

But with the Bulldogs entering Thanksgiving break as the NCAA's top-ranked team for the second-straight week, there is a growing buzz surrounding the program that maybe this could be the season.

It can't be a bad sign for a program that still suffers from the memories of seasons past that ended in overtime that the 2010-11 Bulldogs not only are 11-1-2 (8-1-1 WCHA), but they have yet to lose in seven OT appearance this year (5-0-2).

Coach Scott Sandelin liked his team's chances coming into the season, but his players' resilience and knack for coming up big in crucial situations really has impressed Sandelin, now in his 11th season as coach of the Bulldogs.

"I think going in here, this group had high expectations and we've had some puck luck for sure where things have gone our way in close games, but we've won games in different ways and through hard work," Sandelin said. "We've had good goaltending, special teams has come through, and then the tremendous luck in the overtimes -- like the past two games -- and we're getting it done in close games. So maybe the ability and learning how to win these close games for most of the year so far really I'd say is the key. That's really giving us a confidence that's building right now."

Right now the big guns are stepping up for Sandelin, as the top line of junior captains Mike Connolly (9 goals, 11 assists), and Jack Connolly (5 goals, 15 assists), as well as senior Justin Fontaine (9 goals, 8 assists) have combined for 57 points. Despite the Connolly's being only 5-foot-9 (Mike) and 5-foot-8 (Jack), and Fontaine standing 5-11, their chemistry and playmaking skills have made them one of the hottest lines in the country.

"They're not the biggest group but they all have good hockey sense and certainly are very skilled," Sandelin said of the trio. "They find each other so well on the ice and their rink sense is very, very good. They're more of a puck-possession line -- we get mad at them for not shooting more -- but they like to have the puck and make some great plays. That chemistry is strong and it's fun watching them. And even some of the little things they do day in and day out in practice -- maybe we're spoiled in that regard -- but they're really fun to watch."

With the fast start and the school set to close 44-year-old Duluth Entertainment Convention Center with a two-game set against Denver Dec. 3-4 and then open the new Amsoil on Arena Dec. 30 when the Bulldogs host WCHA rival North Dakota, there is a growing excitement around the program. The players are feeding off it and building confidence, but they also are doing their best to keep things in perspective and realize there still is plenty of hockey to be played.

"It's been exciting," said Jack Connolly. "Obviously being No. 1 in the nation generates a ton of buzz around the team, but there's always great support here and we're happy we're off to this start. With the new rink coming in that just adds to it. But hopefully we keep getting wins and give them something exciting later in the year and in the (NCAA) tournament if we can make it there. But for now, we're taking it one practice and game at a time."

Mike Connolly agreed, noting that with alumni set to converge on campus for the final games at the DECC and the christening games at the Amsoil, the team's history will be at a forefront and subsequently so will the pressure of doing those that came before them proud. As he pointed out, it's just another moment to channel as motivating factors to do something those teams never were able to accomplish.

"We've worked hard and put in the time to be where we're at but we're not satisfied, that's for sure," Mike Connolly said. "You talk to any player here and it's all about appreciating your history. We've had so many tremendous players come through here but yet we've only played for one national championship and haven't won one yet, so to be able to bring that to this program would be amazing. We think we have a team that can go far if we approach things the way we've approached it and we're really excited about the new rink and the direction of the team."

Sandelin is thrilled to see his players' appreciation of the past and realization that they have a chance to make history as a part of Bulldogs hockey history ends and another begins with the their new rink.

"Certainly with guys like Jack Connolly or Max Tardy, who grew up in Duluth and have watched this program their whole life, there's sentiment toward the program because of things like that but it's also things we've tried to do with all the players since I've been here," said Sandelin. "Over my time here, we've tried to get our alumni more involved in stuff like summer golf tournaments or functions during the year when the season is going on.

"There's one thing we haven't done here and that's win a national championship. We had some close calls in the '80s and we had the opportunity with me here in 2004 to play in the Frozen Four. But that is something that this group is focused on and trying to get done. We know all the great players that have come through here and really it still baffles me that we haven't won that national title. We have a great team here so we'll just take it day-by-day and see what happens."

On Campus Notes -- Jerry York signed a new five-year contract with Boston College on Tuesday that will keep him behind the Eagles' bench through the 2014-15 season. "I am very happy to continue my career here at Boston College," York said in a press release. "Since returning to my alma mater 16 years ago, I have been blessed to be surrounded by outstanding assistant coaches and staff members, and countless players with great talent and character. In addition, the support from our administration has been fantastic. I look forward to the years ahead as we strive to keep Boston College among the nation's premier hockey programs." York, a 1967 BC graduate, assumed the coaching duties June 15, 1994. The 2010-11 campaign is his 39th season as a coach, as he spent seven years (1972-79) at Clarkson and 15 years (1979-94) at Bowling Green, where he led the Falcons to a national title in 1984. York also is college hockey's second all-time winningest coach (first among active Division I coaches) with 858 victories. ... Staying with the Eagles, John Muse made 32 saves in a 4-0 shutout of Maine Friday and followed that with a 38-save outing in Sunday's 4-1 win against Maine. Muse is ranked third nationally in goals-against average (1.45) and save percentage (.955). ... University of Denver freshman goaltender Sam Brittain and freshman defenseman David Makowski recently earned WCHA honors. Brittain was named WCHA Defensive Player of the Week, while Makowski earned his second consecutive WCHA Rookie of the Week honor. Brittain backstopped Denver to a two-game home-ice sweep of league rival Bemidji State last weekend. He stopped 14 shots in Denver's 3-1 win Nov. 19 and 20 shots in the 4-2 win Nov. 20. Brittain has started the last 11 games for Denver and has posted a 7-3-2 record with a 1.95 GAA and .934 save percentage. He leads the WCHA in save percentage and ranks second in GAA. Makowski had an assist in the 3-1 win and a goal and an assist in the 4-2 victory, extending his point streak to four games with his second career multi-point game.
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