On the bench of No. 1-ranked Minnesota Duluth, the biggest cheers are not reserved for goals, nor for the hardest hits.
Whether it's a game or practice, the biggest congratulations on the Bulldogs' bench are saved for blocking shots.
"You come back to the bench after a big blocked shot, people notice," UMD senior defenseman Willie Raskob said. "Guys are letting you know, 'Good job, way to get in that lane.' It's definitely something a lot of guys take pride in and a lot of guys praise."
Inside the men's home locker room at Amsoil Arena, there is no bigger badge of honor this season than the bruise of a blocked shot. The Bulldogs (17-5-4 overall, 11-4-1 NCHC) have collected more than a few heading into this weekend's NCHC series against Nebraska-Omaha (14-10-4, 7-8-1). Game time is 7:07 p.m. each night.
The Bulldogs have blocked 374 shots in 26 games for an average of 14.38 blocks per game. That average ranks first in the NCHC and 13th nationally. It's also the highest average for a UMD team in the last five years, with the 2015-16 squad averaging just 10.95 blocks per game.
UMD coach Scott Sandelin said blocking shots is a part of the game today -- though during his playing days it meant you were out of position -- especially on the penalty kill.
"Anytime your guys are sacrificing their body and coming up with big blocks, it's a huge lift on the bench," Sandelin said. "It's no different than scoring a goal or making a big play. Those are little things that really uplift a bench and give you a boost."
Senior defenseman Brenden Kotyk and his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame leads the team in blocks this season with 53, an average of 2.04 per game. That average ranks third in the NCHC.
Raskob, at just 5-10 and 185 pounds, is tied with 6-4, 215-pound senior defenseman Carson Soucy for second on UMD in total blocks with 39 apiece. They are followed by sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk of Hermantown (36) and senior defenseman Dan Molenaar (30).
"It doesn't always feel good, but it feels good to get the win at the end of the night," Kotyk said.
The pain is paying off defensively for UMD, which owns the second-ranked scoring defense in the league, giving up 2.08 goals per game. Opponents are averaging just under 28 shots on goal per outing.
Kotyk said the Bulldogs do a good job taking away the far side from shooters, forcing opponents to go to the short side of the net. From there, he and his teammates try to get into the best position possibly to take away that short side.
"Blocking shots is actually an art form and it's a big skill," Raskob said. "One thing Kotyk is really good at is he baits a guy into the shot. Once he's there, he's a big enough guy to get down. For me, it's more of finding the right lane, reading the guy's eyes, where he is going to go. It's not as easy, but it's something we all have to do. We all take a lot of pride in it."
Blocking shots hasn't been limited just to the Bulldogs' blueliners this season, nor to the penalty killers, but the entire team. Of the 23 skaters on the roster, all but one has registered at least two blocked shots.
Eight of the 14 forwards have blocked 10-plus shots, led by junior wing Karson Kuhlman of Esko (22), senior center Dominic Toninato of Duluth (21), senior wing Alex Iafallo (18) and senior wing Kyle Osterberg (17).
Sophomore wing Parker Mackay, with eight blocks in 18 games, is currently out with a broken hand from blocking a shot. This after taking a puck to the neck as a freshman while blocking a shot.
Blocking shots has a trickle-down effect, said Soucy, Mackay's cousin. When younger players see their captains and their seniors putting their bodies on the line, it makes everyone want to follow suit.
"You see everyone else is willing to do it," Soucy said. "We stress that if there is an opportunity to do it, you have to do it. It's something that is part of the game. The willingness of everyone doing it trickles down. If you're not the one to do it, it doesn't look good on you."
The Bulldogs blocked 18 shots a week ago Saturday in their 2-1 overtime victory over St. Cloud State in the North Star College Cup title game. Junior center Jared Thomas led the way with four blocks. He, Osterberg and Soucy made some big blocks during the second period when the Huskies led 1-0.
Iafallo made it a point to highlight those players and their efforts on Saturday after celebrating what he and his teammates hope is the first of many titles this season. He specifically singled out Soucy, who during a penalty kill in the second blocked back-to-back shots.
Soucy took the first puck to the inside of his right leg. The second caught the inside of his left leg while he was still down on the ice recovering from the first shot.
If UMD wants to capture a couple NCHC titles, plus the program's second NCAA championship, sacrifice like that will be needed down the stretch.
"That's just our willingness to win, our want to win," Soucy said. "We're going to do whatever it takes to win, whether that's blocking shots or taking hits. That's just a willingness and want to win."
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.