UMD Season Preview

Building on a winning year is Minnesota Duluth’s challenge for 2009-10.

Yes, the Bulldogs have found it tough to string winning seasons together the past two decades, but they appear headed in that direction. They were good from start-to-finish last season in men’s hockey, gaining 22 wins, winning the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoff title, getting to the Division I quarterfinals and boasting an All-American goalie.

Nearly half that team is gone, nine players total, yet the cupboard isn’t bare. Captain Drew Akins says he’s confident in a UMD group picked to finish sixth in the WCHA.

“We’ve got everything we need to have another good year. We lost some key contributors, but eight freshmen have come in and will make an impact,” said Akins, a senior center from Excelsior, Minn.

“We had a live-or-die attitude at the end of last season and won the games we had to and got into the [NCAA] tournament. We never quit, we even surprised ourselves, but we knew we had the players to be successful.

“We finished seventh in our league, which was below what we wanted, and we didn’t get to the Frozen Four. We want to improve on that.”

UMD, which opens practice today and faces the University of British Columbia in a 7 p.m. exhibition at the DECC, has star forwards. Three of the top four scorers return – junior Justin Fontaine and sophomores Mike Connolly and Jack Connolly. If they’re not on the same line this season, they’ll certainly be on the top power-play unit. There’s also senior assistant captain Jordan Fulton and Akins.

A wait-and-see approach will be needed for defensemen and goalies. Junior assistant captain Mike Montgomery made a huge leap last season in moving from forward and is the leader on defense. Sophomore Brady Hjelle of International Falls is the heir apparent to two-time team MVP Alex Stalock in goal, having played 80 minutes last season (the only 80 Stalock didn’t play). Sophomore Kenny Reiter will be there to push.

Senior defensemen Trent Palm (hip) and Chase Ryan (hand) are sidelined to start the season; Palm out possibly until December and Ryan at least two weeks.

“We lost some size from last year, but we might have more speed and maybe more skill,” said coach Scott Sandelin. “We’ll be a work in progress and the team identity might be completely different from last season.

“The players we have back learned about being ready for every game, preparing in practice and having high expectations. It may have been a bonus the way we finished the season [going 6-1], but the way we were playing, we deserved to go farther than we did.”

UMD lost character players like Matt Greer and Andrew Carroll, white-hot scorer MacGregor Sharp and its most-productive defenseman, Josh Meyers, among its seniors, then saw Stalock, a junior, sign with San Jose and sophomore defenseman Evan Oberg sign with Vancouver.

They were critical in UMD’s closing rush. After losing the final games of the regular season, at home to Alaska Anchorage, the Bulldogs eliminated Colorado College on the road in the first round of the WCHA playoffs and then made history with three wins in three days at the league Final Five in St. Paul. Included in that stretch was a 3-0 win over regular-season champion North Dakota. An improbable 5-4 overtime comeback victory against Princeton in the NCAA West Regional was followed by a 2-1 loss to eventual NCAA runner up Miami of Ohio in the Division I quarterfinals.

Who will help fill the open roster spots?

Freshmen expected to earn the most ice time are defenseman Dylan Olsen of Calgary, Alberta [Chicago’s No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft], center Dan DeLisle of Arden Hills, Minn. (Chicago’s third-round pick) and winger Mike Seidel of Darrien, Ill. (the fourth-leading scorer in the U.S. Hockey League last season).

UMD’s regular season opens at home Oct. 9 against Lake Superior State and Oct. 11 against Northern Michigan.