For Hermantown native Dylan Samberg, the 2018 World Junior Championship tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., was a turning point in his first season at Minnesota Duluth.
Until then, the Bulldogs freshman defenseman was experiencing an up-and-down season one might expect from a player who was making the jump straight from high school to college. He had just four assists and a minus-5 rating in his first 19 games.
Then Samberg took a break from wearing the maroon and gold to sport Team USA's red, white and blue in Buffalo over the holidays. That's when Samberg was reminded that he was playing at UMD for a reason this season.
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"Coming into this year, you don't really know what to expect. It's a new game. It's a man's game," Samberg said. "I just came in trying to work my hardest. I finally got my confidence after I went to the World Juniors. I played well down there. It really helped me when I came back."
Despite losing all but one blue liner – Nick Wolff – from last year's team that played for an NCAA championship, the Bulldogs are a better defensive team in 2017-18 than they were a year ago. They've done so by replacing the five veteran defensemen they lost – including two currently in the NHL – with five teenagers.
One of those youngsters is the 19-year-old Samberg, who in the second half of the season has been a force on the blue line playing alongside 18-year-old Mikey Anderson.
Samberg has totaled one goal and eight assists in 21 games since returning from the world juniors. More importantly, he's posted a plus-9 rating for a UMD team that has locked things down defensively during the latter half of the season to reach a second consecutive NCAA Frozen Four.
"To come in and do what they've done has been pretty amazing," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said of his defensemen. "Sometimes you can get away with it as a young group of forwards, but to go against some of the players in our league and some of the teams that we've played, to learn and play well in those situations certainly gives them confidence, too."
The Bulldogs and their young defensive corps take on Ohio State in the first Frozen Four semifinal at 6 p.m. ET Thursday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. UMD enters the game with a scoring defense that ranks eighth in the nation after giving up an average of 2.14 goals per game this season compared to 2.26 last year by a team that featured current New York Ranger Neal Pionk and the Minnesota Wild's Carson Soucy at defense.
The Buckeyes enter the Frozen Four with the 10th-best scoring offense at 3.25 goals per game. Win Thursday and UMD could possibly see the sixth-best – Michigan – at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in the national championship game.
Neither should be a problem for UMD, which two weeks ago in Sioux Falls, S.D., beat the nation's top offense, Minnesota State-Mankato, 3-2 in overtime in the semifinals.
The Mavericks played the Bulldogs three times this season, and the two goals in the West Regional was as close as the Mavs came to their season average of 3.83 goals per game.
"I think they've been pretty good all year," Sandelin said of his defensemen. "When you look at that group as a whole, they've played some really good hockey. You have some young players in there that kind of just stepped in there and rode with it."
Like Samberg, the holidays were a turning point for most of the young blue liners.
Louie Roehl, a 19-year-old who played last season with the Minnesota Wilderness of the North American Hockey League, had two assists and a minus-3 rating in the 14 games he played before Christmas. In the 22 games after, he's posted two goals and four assists, and his plus-minus rating has skyrocketed to plus-11.
Roehl's defensive partner, 18-year-old Matt Anderson of Holy Family Catholic, came to UMD in the fall right out of high school like Samberg, with just minimal junior experience last spring. Matt Anderson had one goal and an even rating in his first 15 games. Since Christmas, he has four assists and a plus-9 rating.
Samberg's partner, 18-year-old Mikey Anderson, came to UMD with two seasons of junior experience with Waterloo in the U.S. Hockey League. He has been fairly consistent offensively, posting 10 points in his first 16 games prior to the World Juniors and 13 in the 21 games since. Like the others, he too has seen his plus-minus rating take a jump from plus-3 to plus-7.
Mikey Anderson said the growth he and his fellow blue liners have made this season has been a collective effort.
"We all built off each other in practice," Mikey Anderson said. "We were teaching each other new things. Everyone was watching to see what we could do to get better. As a group, overall we've come along well. We're really happy where we are at right now."
Wolff, a sophomore who at 21 years old is the only Bulldogs defenseman that can legally drink in a bar, includes himself among those still learning every day. The freshmen have been a big help, he said.
After playing in 37 games last year alongside veteran defenseman Dan Molenaar, Wolff has been paired with 19-year-old freshman Scott Perunovich as the team's top defensive duo. Wolff, with seven goals and six assists in 42 games, has been the defensive defenseman sharing the team high of 70 blocks with Samberg. Meanwhile, Perunovich -- the NCHC Rookie of the Year and candidate for national rookie of the year -- leads the Bulldogs in scoring with 11 goals and 25 assists in 40 games.
Like the rookies, Wolff said he struggled to start the season as he adapted to a new role. Now he's comfortable and confident on the blue line, and he has his rookie teammates to thank.
"I don't consider myself the old guy. I'm just as goofy and young as they are," Wolff said. "I learn off of them. They learn off of me. Same with Scotty, too. He leads the rush. It's easy for me. I just have to play my role, do my job and let them do the same thing. Right now they are killing it. They just had one of the best weekends we've seen them play. It's great to see and just shows how much depth we have."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.