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Matt Wellens | Duluth News Tribune | April 7, 2018

Minnesota Duluth's Hunter Shepard shining in net leading up to semifinals

Minnesota Duluth sophomore goaltender Hunter Shepard has put together a stellar season in 2017-18, his first as the Bulldogs starter.

But in the moments following a second consecutive NCAA West Regional title, the Cohasset native was kicking himself for the one goal he let in that night, a fluke puck that bounced in off his skate.

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"The last couple months I've only had to make three-to-four decent saves," Shepard said. "Personally the last two weekends, I haven't been my best."

No one is harder on himself than Shepard, even after the season he has had for the Bulldogs. After playing in just two games last season and starting one, he carries a .924 save percentage and 1.95 goals-against average into the Frozen Four, where the Bulldogs will play Ohio State at 5 p.m. Thursday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Both numbers top those of his predecessor, Hunter Miska, who signed with the Arizona Coyotes last spring after one season at UMD. A finalist last season for national goaltender of the year, Miska after 39 games (same as Shepard) had a .920 save percentage and 2.20 goals-against average.

Despite all that, Shepard is right in a way. Not about his play, but about not having to make many difficult saves as of late.

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Over their last 12 games, the Bulldogs have held opposing teams to fewer than 25 shots on goal eight times. The result has been opponents scoring two or fewer goals on nine occasions with five shutouts by Shepard.

Both West Regional games in Sioux Falls, S.D., fall under those categories, with the 3-2 overtime semifinal win over Minnesota State-Mankato being the most impressive. The Mavericks entered as the best offensive team in the country this season averaging 3.83 goals per game on an average of 34.73 shots per game.

Shepard only had to stop 19 shots that night, including all nine he faced in the third period and overtime. The Bulldogs held the Mavericks to no official shots on goal in the second, then blanked Air Force the next night in the first period of the regional final.

"Me and the (defensemen) and the forwards, collectively when we're all on the same page and playing well, the amount of confidence everybody has in each other as a unit has been a big thing for us," said Shepard, who in the last 12 games has a 1.17 GAA and .947 save percentage and faces an average of 22.08 shots on goal per night. "I know that those guys are going to be there to clear rebounds and they know if they make a mistake, for the most part I've been there to make key saves."

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Whether he has to make a key save or not, the important thing Shepard's teammates say is that he's there, like a security blanket.

"When he's back there, it gives us confidence that he's back there to help us if we ever screw up," freshman defenseman Dylan Samberg said. "He's come in and taken his role over exceptionally. That really helps us with our confidence. He's back there talking with us. We can hear him from the other side of the rink yelling. That's really helpful. He's like a third defenseman back there."

Samberg is one of five rookie defensemen the Bulldogs have been playing this season. Two of those five — Samberg and Matt Anderson — came to UMD in the fall right out of high school without a full season of junior hockey on their resume.

The group experienced some bumps and bruises in the first half of the season — literally and figuratively — but has since become a force on the blue line.

Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin credits Shepard for getting that group and the rest of the team through a rocky first half of the season that saw UMD at the bottom of the NCHC and with a record under .500.

Now they're back in the Frozen Four.

"If you look at our year defensively, it started with getting a goaltender to step up and play well," Sandelin said. "When you have that, it gives everybody confidence. You're going to make some mistakes, but he's been there to bail guys out."

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.