ST. PAUL, Minn. — The home of the 2011 NCAA Frozen Four is named for a power company, but the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs brought their own power to the Xcel Energy Center.
UMD scored three times on six power play opportunities on Thursday afternoon, getting the bulk of their offense from the extra-man unit in a 4-3 win against Notre Dame in the first semifinal at the 2011 NCAA Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minn.
“That game was dictated by one thing,” said Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson, “special teams. They have an exceptional power play, and we couldn’t generate any offense on the power play.”
The power play had been strong all season, and was clicking at a rate of 21.9 percent at the start of the NCAA tournament, one of the top 15 units in the country. However, when the Bulldogs were assigned to the NCAA East Regional, the extra-man units of the other schools were the subject of much more discussion, as Yale, Union and Air Force brought three of the nation’s top four extra-man units to Bridgeport, Conn. The Bulldogs, however, knew how good their players were with the man advantage, and didn’t need media attention to tell them that.
“Our power play has been great all year, even though we weren’t in the top in the nation,” said senior forward Justin Fontaine, who plays the point on the UMD power play. “It’s been one thing we relied on and wanted to capitalize on because special teams are huge.”
The power play unit has certainly been huge for the Bulldogs through three games in the NCAA tournament. After Thursday’s 3-for-6 performance, UMD has now converted on approximately 34.8 percent of its extra-man opportunities, good for second among the 16 teams in the tournament (Colorado College connected at a clip of 36.4 percent in two games at the West Regional).
“We went through stretches where we were getting opportunities and not scoring,” Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin said. “Right now they’ve been going in. We have a group that we have a plan and they create within that plan. And when they do that, obviously they’re pretty good players.”
Three of those players – Fontaine, junior winger Mike Connolly and junior center Jack Connolly – have plenty of experience playing together, as the “FCC line” was first formed last season before becoming a staple for Duluth in 2010-11, and the three Bulldogs have a total of 72 power play goals for UMD since the start of the 2008-09 season.
“Jack and Mike and Fonzie, those guys have been on there for two or three years,” Sandelin said, “so they’re pretty familiar with each other.”
Still, for Jackson, it was a newer addition that caught his eye: freshman defenseman Justin Faulk. Faulk was on the ice for all four Duluth goals Thursday, and finished with three assists.
Assessing his own team’s power play, which was fruitless in five opportunities on Thursday with just two shots, Jackson said, “We don’t have anyone like Duluth’s quarterback out there at the point. I think Sam Calabrese is developing that, but Faulk is a threat out there from a shooting perspective and he’s also a good playmaker.”
For his part, Faulk, a native of South St. Paul, was just thrilled for the opportunity to play for an NCAA Championship so close to his home, in front of family and friends.
“I live about five, ten minutes from here,” Faulk said. “It’s just amazing knowing that I do live that close. And having family and friends here watching and at the game or on TV, it’s just exciting, and I couldn’t have asked for a better location for it.”
Another freshman, Burnsville, Minn. native J.T. Brown, made his presence felt as well, scoring the first Duluth goal and assisting on the game-winner. Brown has been a valuable addition to the Bulldogs’ extra-man unit, scoring five of his 16 goals on the power play.
“He’s been a player for us all year,” Fontaine said. “ He stepped his game up, and when the team needed a boost he’s been there moving his feet, winning battles, and he’s just been a big key to our team all year. He’s been great for us all year.”
Now, with newcomers like Brown and Faulk joining established veterans like Fontaine and the two (unrelated) Connollys, “all year” includes one more day, an NCAA Championship date with Michigan on Saturday night at the X, and a chance to bring home the first NCAA Championship in program history in the Bulldogs’ first title game appearance since 1984.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Jack Connolly said. “We’re looking to make history in our program. This is something that’s never been done, and I couldn’t be more proud of the guys and our coaching staff. We’ve worked hard all year, and this is our ultimate goal is to get to this game on Saturday. We’re definitely excited. And it’s been a fun ride so far.”