Thursday, May 22, 2014

Know Your Enemy: Minnesota-Duluth

When we put together this Know Your Enemy series, typically the longest ones to do are teams that the Engineers haven't played in a while (or at least haven't played since the 2010-11 season, when we first started doing these), because our first time visiting a specific team we like to talk about the full history of the program, how it got started, its glory years (if they exist), its tough stretches (if they exist), and how they've been doing recently. This year, RPI's schedule only has three teams we haven't touched on in the past here at WaP, and this week is our first of those three, the second potential opponent of the second game of the Icebreaker.

Nickname: Bulldogs
Location: Duluth, MN
Founded: 1895
Conference: NCHC
National Championships: 1 (2011)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: 2011
Coach: Scott Sandelin (15th season)
2013-14 Record: 16-16-4 (11-11-2-2 NCHC, 4th place)
Series: UMD leads, 6-3-0
First Game: December 30, 1964 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: January 3, 2003 (Troy, NY)
Last UMD win: January 4, 2003 (Troy, NY)

2014-15 game: October 12, 2014 (South Bend, IN - possible)

Key players: F Justin Crandall, sr.; D Derik Johnson, sr.; F Adam Krause, sr.; F Tony Cameranesi, jr.; F Cal Decowski, jr.; F Austin Farley, jr.; G Matt McNeely, jr.; D Andy Welinski, jr.; F Alex Iafallo, so.; F Kyle Osterberg, so.; D Willie Raskob, so.; D Carson Soucy, so.; F Dominic Toninato, so.; F Brett Boehm, fr.; F Karson Kuhlman, fr.; F Blake Young, fr.

Interesting little tidbit before we get started - RPI fans may remember that the Engineers had a defenseman named Matt McNeely, Class of 2005. He was from Ontario, UMD's McNeely is from Minnesota. Ultimately, just another item that links RPI and UMD, as you'll soon see.

Hockey at Duluth got underway in 1931, at a time when many college teams around the country were folding or suspending due to the Great Depression. Duluth State Teachers College, as the school was known at the time, began fielding teams under the tutelage of Frank Kovach, who was also the school's football and men's basketball coach. These teams competed entirely against local high schools and junior colleges in 1931 and 1932, losing their first eight contests before winning their final two in 1932 against a pair of Duluth-area high schools.

The sport went dormant after those two wins in 1932 as the realities of the Depression took hold. As with other schools, the end of World War II brought with it a surge in enrollment at the school, and in 1947 Duluth State Teachers College was added to the University of Minnesota system, gaining its present name a year after the moribund hockey program at the school was re-established. After a few seasons as independents, the Bulldogs joined the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 1950, a lower-level conference that today competes in Division III.

Throughout the 1950s, UMD was frequently one of the top teams in the MIAC. They scored league titles in eight of nine consecutive seasons from 1953 through 1961, frequently playing top-level teams as part of their non-conference schedule. By 1957, the Bulldogs were notching victories against established programs like Michigan Tech, Harvard, and Dartmouth, among others.

The relative ease with which UMD was winning titles in the MIAC and the competitiveness they showed against top-level programs resulted in the team going independent in 1961 under head coach Ralph Romero, and compiling schedules that included some of the very best teams in the nation, including Minnesota, Michigan State, and Denver. Those schools would eventually be opponents in the WCHA when the Bulldogs joined the conference as its first expansion program in 1966.

UMD struggled early on in their new conference. After season after season of domination in the MIAC, the Bulldogs failed to notch winning records in 11 of their first 13 years in the WCHA. With the exceptions of 1972 (5th of 10) and 1979 (4th of 10), UMD never finished in the top half of the league prior to the arrival of Mike Sertich behind the bench in 1982.

During that stretch, the team did earn a few bits of fame. In 1974, UMD won the first (and only) College Hockey NIT tournament. The four-team tournament was hosted in Duluth, and ended with the Bulldogs defeating Vermont 7-4 to cap the program's first ever 20-win season. The 1979 team, meanwhile, started the season 11-0-2 and was tabbed in January of that year as the top team in the nation in an early media poll. However, the Bulldogs could not keep up their hot streak and proceeded to finish the year 11-14-2, missing out on NCAA glory. That team was lead by All-American Mark Pavelich, who would go on the next year to star on the US Olympic Team that won the gold medal in Lake Placid.

Sertich's arrival changed things quickly for the Bulldogs. In the 1982-83 season, UMD finished just 4th in the eight-team WCHA, but absolutely tore through its non-conference schedule, going undefeated outside of their league to earn the school's first ever NCAA bid. The Bulldogs fell in a two-game series at the ECAC's Providence, but bigger things were right around the corner.

The 1984 Bulldogs stormed through their conference, capturing its first ever WCHA regular season title by a comfortable margin over North Dakota, then winning the WCHA championship for the first time, annihilating the Fighting Sioux 8-1 in the first game of the two-game championship series to make the second game practically meaningless (they lost 5-4, but easily won on total goals). After squeezing by a game Clarkson team 9-8 on total goals in the first round of the NCAA tournament, UMD qualified for its first Frozen Four, held in Lake Placid that season.

Meeting back up with a North Dakota team that had ridden a hot goaltender to a first-round upset of RPI, UMD required overtime to advance to the national championship game with a goal off the stick of sophomore Bill Watson. The next day, senior defenseman Tom Kurvers became the first of five Duluth players to win the Hobey Baker Award - more than any other school in the nation.

Bowling Green was the opponent in the 1984 national championship game, which turned into two games when one considers that the contest went well into the Adirondack night, going four 10-minute overtimes for what was at the time the longest game in the history of the NCAA tournament, a title it would hold for over a decade. Gino Cavallini broke the deadlock at 97:11, crushing Duluth's national crown hopes.

Despite the setback, the Bulldogs were not done. As dominant as their 1984 team had been, their 1985 team had seemed to be a team of destiny. With the addition of freshman Brett Hull, son of NHL legend Bobby Hull, the Bulldogs demolished the WCHA (and Hockey East, as the leagues had interlocking schedules that season) on their way to a second consecutive regular season and tournament sweep and a third straight NCAA bid. That team ended with 36 victories, still the most in any season by a UMD team by seven.

After quickly dispatching Harvard in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Bulldogs found themselves drawn with the team from the east that had been doing largely the same thing they'd been doing in the west: RPI. Hours before the teams clashed in Detroit, Watson was awarded the Hobey Baker - UMD's second in as many years. Legend has it that the ceremony provided a bit of additional motivation for the Engineers, who felt that their own Adam Oates had been unjustly snubbed (Watson did have 108 points on the season at the time, then an NCAA record), and RPI's Pierre Langevin got the team going by putting Watson into the boards early in the contest.

But like the previous season, UMD's quest for a national championship would end following a lot of extra hockey. The 1985 edition of Gino Cavellini came in the form of John Carter, whose goal in the third overtime propelled the Engineers to what would eventually be the school's second national title, and forced UMD to ponder another Frozen Four of "what if."

The 1985 team was the pinnacle of the Bulldogs' success under Sertich. With "The Golden Brett" hanging around for one more season, UMD completed their fourth straight 20-win season in 1986, but brought home no hardware and missed the NCAA tournament. Following Hull's departure at the end of the season, the good times ended in Duluth for quite some time. Five of the next six campaigns saw the Bulldogs finish under .500, and back in their previously "usual" position in the bottom half of the WCHA standings.

In 1993, with a team that featured eventual Hobey Baker winner Chris Marinucci, UMD returned to the top of the WCHA with a 27 win season, but were upset in the WCHA tournament by Northern Michigan and stopped short of the Frozen Four with a loss to defending national champions Lake Superior State.

The rest of Sertich's squads in the 1990s were middling to mediocre, putting up 20-win seasons in 1996 and 1998, but bottoming out in 1999 with a 7-win campaign that was the fewest UMD had managed since a 6-win year in 1969. After tough campaign in 2000, Sertich's tenure in Duluth ended after 18 seasons with his resignation.

Scott Sandelin replaced Sertich in 2000, tasked with returning the Bulldogs to competitiveness within the WCHA. His first season was the team's second 7-win campaign out of three, but UMD began to show improvement in his second and third years, breaking out in 2004 with 28 wins and the team's first NCAA bid in 11 years. After a somewhat surprising 5-0 whitewash of Michigan State (in Grand Rapids, MI no less), the Bulldogs upset Minnesota 3-1 to advance to their first Frozen Four in 19 years.

In Boston against WCHA rivals Denver, UMD led 2-0 after one and 3-1 after two, but suffered a 3rd period collapse in which the Pioneers scored four goals, including an empty netter, to come back for a 5-3 win en route to the national championship, the third time in as many Frozen Fours that the Bulldogs had lost to the eventual champs. Still, Duluth forward Junior Lessard nabbed the school's fourth Hobey Baker Award the next day.

The heartbreaking manner in which the Bulldogs were ushered out of the Frozen Four in 2004 solidified UMD's reptuation for being unable to get over the hump, especially after four losing seasons that followed Duluth's loss in Boston. Amid rumors in 2009 that Sandelin's job may soon be in jeopardy, he and his team spearheaded an impressive, never-before-seen run to the WCHA championship, becoming the first team in the history of the league's Final Five tournament to win the Thursday play-in game, then knock off the top team in the tournament on Friday and win the title on Saturday, downing Minnesota, North Dakota, and Denver by a combined 9-1 score after sweeping a road series at Colorado College to reach the Final Five. After a 5-4 win over Princeton, UMD fell 2-1 against Miami, but Sandelin's job was no longer in question.

The 2010 Bulldogs completed a second straight 20-win season, but saw their season end in the WCHA play-in game. That set the table for what would prove to be a magical 2011 campaign. In December, the team moved into a new arena in the middle of another solid season. Though WCHA honors would again elude UMD, they did enough to earn an NCAA bid, though they had a rough draw having to go through top-ranked Yale and ECAC regular season champions Union in Connecticut. The Bulldogs proceeded to shutout Union 2-0 and use a 2nd period surge of goals to grab a 5-1 edge against Yale that turned into a 5-3 win.

The 2011 Frozen Four was being held on friendly turf at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, but the path to glory was hardly easy. Against Notre Dame in the semifinals, UMD had to fight back from two first-period deficits and then hang on in the third-period in which they were badly outshot to pick up a 4-3 win and advance to their second national championship game. There against Michigan, the Bulldogs went into the dreaded overtime period, but there would be no Cavellini or Carter redux this time - Kyle Schmidt scored the biggest goal in UMD history 3:22 into the first overtime to bring Duluth its very first national championship.

The Bulldogs went back to the NCAA tournament in 2012, but were taken down by eventual champions Boston College just one step away from the Frozen Four. That season, Jack Connelly became UMD's fifth Hobey winner. In 2013, the school's final year in the WCHA, the Bulldogs finished with a losing record for the first time in five years, then last season in the new NCHC improved to an even .500 as a mid-pack team in the stacked conference.

Last year's UMD squad was quite young - in fact, it graduated just four seniors, only one of whom was among the team's top 10 scorers. Those seniors were the last remnants of the national championship team, they were freshmen when the Bulldogs won it all. They bring back five NHL draft picks this season and three of four of its players from last season who notched 10 or more goals - Crandall, Osterberg, and Iafallo. The biggest change is in net as McNeely takes over as the top choice netminder from the graduated Aaron Crandall, but this won't be a new assignment for him as he played the majority of UMD's minutes between the pipes during his freshman year.

As mentioned last week, the Bulldogs are, all things being equal, RPI's more likely opponent on the Sunday of Icebreaker weekend and they too present a solid challenge. They have the scoring ability to challenge the RPI defense, and they return enough solid defensemen and a well-seasoned goaltender to cause problems for an offense that didn't have a lot of parity to it last season. Expect a strong season for UMD and an entertaining, well-matched game should the Engineers and Bulldogs do battle once again.

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