All the comforts of home
Minnesota-Duluth looking forward to home-state title fight
When the Bulldogs of the University of Minnesota-Duluth traveled to Bridgeport for the 2011 NCAA East Regional, they had the smallest fan base of any of the four teams at Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard.
Not that it was a problem. The Bulldogs beat Union 2-0 in the regional semifinal, then beat top overall seed Yale 5-3 in front of a partisan crowd less than 20 miles from the Elis’ home rink to capture the regional championship.
Now, the Bulldogs get to be the home team.
With their home rink at Amsoil Arena just over 150 miles from the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Duluth will have the shortest trip to the championship site of any Frozen Four team since Wisconsin won the 2006 NCAA Championship at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
“It’s nice to be close to home,” Sandelin said. “We’ve played at the Xcel. Obviously, for the fans it’s great, because they have an opportunity to travel. There might be more distractions, but when you get to this point, everybody’s coming into a neutral site, and the best teams are going to advance, and one team is going to be standing at the end.”
While all the Bulldogs are no doubt grateful for the opportunity to play in a building that they know well – having played there six times in the past three seasons – few can appreciate as much as junior center Jack Connolly. One of three Duluth natives on the roster, Connolly was one of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award after amassing 17 goals and 41 assists in 40 games this season.
“It was a dream of mine to play for my hometown and play for the Bulldogs,” Connolly said. “It’s definitely been a little while since we’ve been to a Frozen Four, and we felt we had all the potential in the world with this team this year. It’s been a little up and down this year, but we battled hard in the postseason, and we’ve given ourselves that opportunity to try and make history in our program. Definitely, being a hometown kid, it’s an unbelievable experience for me right now, and I can’t wait to get down to St. Paul.”
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Those 41 assists have come mostly while centering the Bulldogs’ “FCC Line” with classmate Mike Connolly (no relation) and senior Justin Fontaine, who have 27 and 22 goals this season, respectively. With a total of 66 goals between them, the FCC Line may well be the most dangerous in the country, which the centerman thinks is a function of their experience playing together.
“I think it’s line chemistry,” the Duluth native said. “We know where each other are at every point on the ice. I think we feed well off each other with different goal plays that we work down low. I think it’s nice to work off those guys. They know where they are in the offensive zone. It definitely makes it easier with two wingers that can put the puck in the net. I just try to do my job and find the open man. They do their part in putting it in the net. I’ve been playing with them for the better part of two and a half years, and it’s an unbelievable line to be playing with. I’m very fortunate to have two guys that think the game the same way as I do.”
All the Bulldogs have been thinking the same way about hair care of late, having dyed their hair blond at the start of the postseason. That will make for a battle of “golden domers” on Thursday, as the Bulldogs will take on Northeast Regional winner Notre Dame in the first game of the Frozen Four (5:00 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“Obviously, they’re very well coached,” Sandelin said, showing respect to Fighting Irish head coach Jeff Jackson, who took Notre Dame to the 2008 NCAA Championship game after winning two NCAA Championships at Lake Superior State in the 1990s. “They’re very disciplined. They’ve got a great freshman class. You look at T.J. Tynan, whom I’ve seen a number of times in the USHL, Anders Lee, those kids have both had great years. Mike Johnson’s been great for them in goal.”
The Bulldogs have some fantastic frosh of their own in forward J.T. Brown (15g, 19a) and defenseman Justin Faulk (8g, 22a), but the real answer is likely to come from the FCC line, led by the junior centerman who, like fourth-line forwards Max Tardy and Keegan Flaherty, is proud to be a hometown hero.
“Those guys take a lot of pride in being from here,” Sandelin said. “They chose this program. Some guys had opportunities other places, and for them to pick us, it means a lot. They bring great traditions to our program. They take a lot of pride in being from here and playing for this program. It’s been our goal since we started here, as a coaching staff, to try to find the best players in our area and try to go after those guys, and I think we’ve done that. It’s great to have a local flavor on your team and certainly guys who are impact players.”