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Matt Wellens | Duluth News Tribune | February 21, 2018

Minnesota Duluth's Shepard chasing history, stabilizing Bulldogs

Minnesota Duluth hockey coach Scott Sandelin is running out of ways to praise his goaltender, sophomore Hunter Shepard.

The Cohasset native has been consistent. He's confident. He's seeing the puck well. He's controlling rebounds.

What more can the coach say?

"I feel like a broken record," Sandelin said Saturday after Shepard posted his second consecutive shutout and fifth of the season to complete an NCHC sweep of Miami at Amsoil Arena. "He's just been good for us. He's stabilized our team by playing the way he's played. Everybody has more confidence knowing that he's played the way he's played."

After an up-and-down start to his sophomore year, Shepard has been the model of consistency for the ninth-ranked Bulldogs, who head to No. 17 Western Michigan this week for a pair of league contests. UMD is tied for third in the NCHC, with the Broncos just two points back in fifth.

Shepard has posted a 1.84 goals-against average and .934 save percentage since the calendar turned to 2018. He was named NCHC goaltender of the week on Monday for a league-high fourth time in 2017-18 after stopping all 50 shots he faced in the sweep of Miami.

The back-to-back shutouts were a first by a UMD goaltender in a home series. They also lifted Shepard into a four-way tie for shutouts by a Bulldog in a single season.

Current UMD volunteer goaltending coach Brant Nicklin was the first to post five shutouts in a season in 1997-98. Kasimir Kaskisuo tied the mark in 2015-16, Hunter Miska followed in 2016-17 and now Shepard this season.

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"We've been pretty fortunate here to have some stellar goaltending," UMD senior captain Karson Kuhlman said. "That's a product of everyone working hard every day. We push him to be better and he pushes us to score goals."

Shepard said Friday's 4-0 win, in which he only had to make 16 saves, was one of the easier games he's had this season thanks to the play of those in front of him.

Despite long stretches without much action, Shepard said it was easy for him to stay in the game because when teammates are playing that well, you don't want to let them down.

"You have to stay mentally in there and just take it a period at a time," Shepard said. "The guys played good in front of me. You have to be in the game mentally back there. You have to keep up your end of the bargain."

Shepard opened the season with a plus-3.0 goals-against average and a save percentage that struggled to stay above .900. He was fifth in the NCHC in GAA (2.31) and eighth in save percentage (.906) to start December.

Now Shepard sits fourth in the NCHC in goals-against average (2.15) and third among NCHC netminders in save percentage (.921) after allowing two or fewer goals in eight of his last 11 starts.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have generated three-plus goals in eight of those games. Shepard is a big reason why the offense is succeeding, his teammates say.

"It's huge to have a guy you can trust back there. It means we can jump up in the rush, it means we can get some more offense going," sophomore defenseman Nick Wolff said. "To have him back there is a big confidence boost. Hopefully we can keep it going to the playoffs."

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Tournament chances bright

The Bulldogs are not only in position to lock up home ice in the NCHC playoffs, they are also on track to make a fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance.

UMD is 10th in the Pairwise rankings — the system used to select and seed the NCAA tournament — and would be a No. 3 seed if the season ended today, likely playing out in either Allentown, Pa., Bridgeport, Conn., or Worcester, Mass.

According to Jim Dahl's latest mathematical forecast on collegehockeyranked.com, two wins over the last four games would give UMD a 62.5 percent chance of sitting between 11th and 12th in the Pairwise at the end of the regular season. Three wins firmly puts UMD inside the top 10 going into the league playoffs.

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.