After falling a goal short of a national championship in 2016-17, Minnesota Duluth's returning players believe the program can make another title run in 2017-18.

And if UMD does play for a national championship during the 2018 NCAA Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, expect the path to be eerily similar to this year's Bulldogs, who had a flare for the dramatic right down to the very end with a one-goal loss to NCHC rival Denver on Saturday night in the NCAA championship game at United Center in Chicago.

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"That's the goal," freshman wing Joey Anderson said of another title run. "That's what we're going to work toward this summer, making sure we get to back to that same spot and finishing it off right this time."

UMD played in an NCAA-leading 12 overtime games this season, going 5-0-7. Those five wins were the most in the NCAA, and included victories over St. Cloud State in the North Star College Cup final at Xcel, an NCHC quarterfinal win over Miami at Amsoil Arena and a pair of victories at the NCAA West Regional in Fargo, N.D.

The NCAA championship loss was one of 19 games UMD played that was decided by a goal. UMD was 14-5 in those games, beating Harvard in the Frozen Four semifinals and North Dakota in the championship of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.

"This year was certainly a hard year," Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. "There were no easy games for us. This group showed a lot of resolve. We're going to probably be that way next year, too. As much as I want the 5-1 games, we're just a team that has that mentality. Hopefully, if we're in those games next year, we'll have the same results."

If next year's team ends up in similar situations, it will be with a slightly different cast of characters.

UMD is losing seven seniors, including three of its top goal-scorers up front in forwards Alex Iafallo (21 goals, 30 assists, 51 points), Dominic Toninato (16-13--29) and Kyle Osterberg (12-11--23). Toninato, of Duluth, was the team's captain and third-leading goal-scorer. Iafallo, a first-team All-American, led the team in goals, assists and points.

The Bulldogs will return plenty of firepower though, including Anderson (12-25--37), who finished second among NCHC freshmen in scoring. Sophomore center Adam Johnson (18-19--37) is also back after his breakout season. The Hibbing native not only tripled his goal production, he was the Bulldogs' utility knife playing wing, center and even a game at defenseman.

"The big thing is I started off good and it gave me a lot of confidence," Johnson said. "I just never really looked back from there. Overall, it was a great year."

Sandelin said he expects to keep Johnson at center next season now that the former Bluejacket is more comfortable with the position and the responsibilities that come with it. Sandelin also said his fellow Hibbing native could be the best player in the NCHC, if not all of college hockey, next season.

"He was great. Johnson was awesome for us, certainly down the stretch," Sandelin said. "When he's skating, he's a guy you want with the puck. He had some tremendous games through the year, certainly at the end of the year. He's a guy that is an offensive catalyst for us."

The Bulldogs' biggest question marks will be on the back end. The program could lose its No. 1 goaltender to the professional ranks for the second consecutive season with freshman Hunter Miska, an undrafted free agent, still weighing his options after receiving significant attention from NHL franchises.

Miska started 39 of 42 games, and posted a 2.20 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. His two understudies, freshmen Nick Deery and Hunter Shepard, started just three games and appeared in only five combined, though they were both solid in the limited action they saw.

Compounding things is the Bulldogs are graduating four senior defensemen who have combined to play in 481 games on the blue line the last four seasons. Carson Soucy, now in the Minnesota Wild organization, and Willie Raskob accounted for 295 of those games.

Sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk of Hermantown, another undrafted free agent who has received plenty of attention this year from NHL teams, could be on his way out of Duluth after playing in 82 games on the blue line in just two years. He finished fourth on the team in scoring with seven goals and 27 assists for 34 points.

Pionk's early departure would leave freshman Nick Wolff as the lone returning defenseman to have played all season. Sandelin called the 6-foot-4, 215-pound native of Eagan, Minn., one of the team's top defensemen down the stretch. Wolff was able to rise to the occasion throughout March and April when Soucy was out with a knee injury.

Sandelin also liked what he saw from freshman defenseman Jarod Hilderman, who took Soucy's place in the lineup while the Wild prospect was out. Even freshman Will Campion, who played in just one game this season, showed potential in practice, Sandelin said.

"They're going to be younger, but we have some pretty talented players coming back and also coming in as freshmen," Sandelin said of next year's defensemen. "There might be some growing pains, but I think we have a pretty good nucleus of forwards. This year we had a little bit of a no-name defense, but they did pretty well. That's our job to work with them, make them better."

This article is written by Matt Wellens from Duluth News Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.