BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – When the Bulldogs of the University of Minnesota-Duluth arrived earlier this week for the 2011 NCAA East Regional, a sign at their hotel welcomed the “University of Minnesota.”

That’s fine with the Bulldogs, though. In a little more than a week, the University of Minnesota will be welcoming them.

The University of Minnesota - Twin Cities will be the host institution for the 2011 NCAA Frozen Four on April 8 and 10 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., but it’s Duluth that will be the home team.

The Bulldogs earned that right on Saturday night at Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard, defeating top overall seed Yale, 5-3, in the East Regional final.

“This is pretty exciting,” said UMD head coach Scott Sandelin. “I couldn’t be more proud of our team. I thought coming into this tournament nobody gave us a lot of credit. Our guys showed a lot of resiliency through this tournament. I’m glad we got a couple of tough wins against two very good hockey teams.”

Located just 155 miles from the Xcel Energy Center on I-35, Minnesota Duluth is closer to the site of the Frozen Four than any participating team since 2006, when the University of Wisconsin won the NCAA Championship in front of a partisan crowd at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, some 80 miles east of campus.

“We’re used to the Xcel,” said junior forward Mike Connolly. “We’ve been there plenty of times over the last couple of years. The fan support should be tremendous. I guess we’re ‘Minnesota’s Team’ now.”

Mike’s linemate, Hobey Baker Award finalist Jack Connolly, is no relation, but he does have a brother playing NCAA hockey: Chris Connolly, who won the NCAA Championship in 2009 with Boston University. Seeing his brother win two years ago with the Terriers has helped drive Jack to succeed with the Bulldogs.

“I’ve talked to him about his experience before,” Jack said. “It’s definitely not an easy road to get to that Frozen Four. Seeing him go through it, and all the hard work they did as a team, we’re emulating that on our team pretty well this year. I feel there’s no reason we can’t go down there and get a couple of wins.”

The thrill of being able to play close to campus is sweetened by the absence of the WCHA rival Gophers, who failed to qualify for the tournament for the third straight season.

“Anytime we’re ahead of the Gophers is a good thing for us,” Mike Connolly said, “but there’s a lot of good teams in Minnesota. We’re fortunate enough to be there and have the support of the state, and we’re looking to make the most of it. It’s not often you get an opportunity like that, to have the whole state behind you. You have to make the most of these opportunities.”

And while the Bulldogs are happy to have one up on their rivals from the Twin Cities, they’re not afraid to be “Golden” in their own right. Before the WCHA playoffs started, the Duluth players dyed their hair blond, a look that they’ve kept throughout the postseason.

“Blonds have more fun, right?” Mike Connolly asked with a smile.

They’ll have more fun in two weeks in St. Paul.

 

The Results

East Regional Final: Minnesota Duluth 5, Yale 3
West Regional Final: Michigan 2, Colorado College 1
Midwest Regional Semifinal: North Dakota 6, Rensselaer 0
Midwest Regional Semifinal: Denver 3, Western Michigan 2 (2OT)
Northeast Regional Semifinal: New Hampshire 3, Miami 1
Northeast Regional Semifinal: Notre Dame 4, Merrimack 3 (OT)

Saturday's Three Stars

1. Jason Zucker, freshman, F, Denver - Zucker assisted on two goals in the final five minutes of the third period to help the Pioneers tie their Midwest Regional semifinal game against Western Michigan, then scored at 11:14 of double overtime to give the Pioneers a 3-2 win.

2. Anders Lee, freshman, F, Notre Dame – Lee scored two goals, the second in overtime, leading the Fighting Irish to a 4-3 victory over Merrimack in the second semifinal at the Northeast Regional in Manchester, N.H. Lee ranks fourth in the country in rookie scoring – teammate T.J. Tynan is first – but he’s hardly the first Notre Dame freshman to come up big in NCAA tournament play. Irish senior Calle Ridderwall was a freshman when he scored two goals, the second in overtime, to lead Notre Dame to victory over Michigan at the 2008 Frozen Four.

3. Mike Connolly, junior, F, Minnesota Duluth – Connolly scored a goal and assisted on three others in the Bulldogs’ 5-3 win over Yale to advance to the Frozen Four. All told, Connolly was on the ice for six of the Bulldogs’ seven goals at the East Regional, and was named to the All-Tournament Team.

 Seen and Heard

• New Hampshire’s upset of Miami in the Northeast Regional was a reversal of fortunes from the RedHawks’ last trip to Manchester in 2007. In that regional, it was Miami that was seeded fourth in the Regional, only to upset the top-seeded Wildcats. “I was really proud of the way the team played. We probably played as well as we have all season from start to finish. We knew we had to play our very best in order to beat Miami.”

• The 2011 NCAA Frozen Four will be only the third in the last 20 years without any participants from the previous year’s Frozen Four (2004 and 2009 are the others). 2010 NCAA Champion Boston College and Frozen Four semifinal opponent Miami University were both eliminated in the regional semifinals, while Rochester Institute of Technology and Wisconsin did not qualify for this year’s Championship.

• Notre Dame’s win over Merrimack on Saturday was the first NCAA tournament win for the Fighting Irish since the semifinals of the 2008 Frozen Four. The Fighting Irish lost to Bemidji State in the semifinals of the 2009 Midwest Regional, and did not qualify for the tournament in 2010.