Minnesota Hockey Magazine

NCHC – Minnesota is Ground Zero

(Featured photo: Minnesota Duluth goaltender Hunter Shephard.  Photo by Jonny Watkins)

Bulldogs, Huskies expected to be on front lines of NCHC supremacy battle

By Mick Hatten

St. Cloud State’s Jimmy Schuldt. Photo by Jeff Wegge.

For the first five seasons of the NCHC, the two men’s hockey programs from the state of Minnesota have been in the thick of the race for a lot of hardware. Expectations are that will remain the same this season.

Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State are travel partners in the conference, which means they play one another four times a season at a minimum. St. Cloud State has won two NCHC regular season titles and played in three NCHC championship games and Minnesota Duluth has played in two NCHC championship games.

Between the teams, they’ve played in six NCAA regional championship games in the last five seasons.

Now throw in that now former Bulldogs assistant coach Brett Larson was named the Huskies’ new head coach in the offseason and the rivalry figures to continue to heat up.

“Both teams have had some success in the last five years and the games will be good,” Scott Sandelin, who is beginning his 19th season as Bulldogs head coach and has 18 players returning. “It will be unique for both Brett and I when we play.

“I went through that when I coached against (former head coach) Dean (Blais) at North Dakota,” said Sandelin, a former North Dakota assistant coach. “I told him I still would throw a water bottle at him if I had to. (Brett and I) will talk before and after and in between (games). He’s competitive and I’m competitive.”

Larson, a former Minnesota Duluth captain, had two stints as Sandelin’s assistant coach with the Bulldogs. He was on the Bulldogs’ bench from 2008-11 and 2015-18 and concluded each tenure with national titles, first in 2011 and again last spring. Between those two stints, he was an assistant coach at Ohio State where he helped recruit several of the players that played in the Frozen Four in April only to be beaten by UMD in the semifinals.

This will be his first stint as a college head coach. But Larson has also inherited a roster with 21 returners from a team that won the NCHC regular season title, played in the NCHC championship game and was the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament before being upset by Air Force in the first round.

“I don’t know if there’s been any major surprises yet, but it’s more excitement and the biggest excitement is over how good of kids there are in the locker room, getting to know them and seeing what the culture is like and how committed they are to the program and each other,” Larson said. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise with how well the program has been doing.”

The similarities between St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth have become a bit more pronounced to Larson since he accepted the job in April. Larson and his assistant coaches – Mike Gibbons and Nick Oliver – have gotten verbal commitments from 11 players.

“There were a lot of kids I was recruiting at Duluth that I told to forget about everything I was telling them before,” Larson said with a smile. “But it’s been fun because Mike Gibbons used to use the line of, ‘Hey Lars, you and I shop in the same aisle all the time (recruiting),’ because we’d be bumping into each other everywhere.

“It’s a similar player and a similar kid that the schools recruit.”

Minnesota Duluth has played in the last two national championship games and surprised many on its way to the national title last season. The Bulldogs got off to a 2-7 start in the NCHC after having to replace their starting goalie, five of the team’s top six defensemen and the bulk of their scoring from the previous season.

But Hunter Shepard, who is from Cohasset and entering his sophomore season, had a .940 save percentage and 1.52 goals-against average in the last 25 games of the season to help the Bulldogs win the title.

“Minnesota Duluth won a national championship and what got their team going was when Shepard took off as goalie,” said Andy Murray, a former NHL coach who is beginning his eighth season as head coach at Western Michigan. “We can talk about (the Bulldogs’) unbelievable defense and everything and they matured. But they got goaltending … and that’s huge.”

Shepard returns in goal as a sophomore and so do the Bulldogs’ top six defensemen from last season, led by Scott Perunovich, a sophomore from Hibbing. Perunovich was the NCHC Defenseman of the Year, a first team All-American and the national Freshman of the Year last season.

“We stress a defensive game and we’re going to be hard to play against,” said Bulldogs senior forward Parker Mackay, whose team won their last three NCAA games by identical 2-1 scores. “At the same time, we need to work on our offensive side of the game as well. We’ve got to be able to score more goals than our opponent and we can’t just focus on our defensive strengths.

“At the same time, it’s definitely a good starting point for us.”

Voters in the NCHC preseason poll of the media that cover the conference agree. The Bulldogs received 20 of the 27 first-place votes and were picked to win the regular season conference title.

St. Cloud State received six first-place votes and was picked to finish second. While there may be an unknown for the Huskies with a new head coach, St. Cloud State got another boost in the offseason when defenseman Jimmy Schuldt decided to return for his senior season.

Schuldt, a first team All-American from Minnetonka, turned down a bevy of offers as an undrafted free agent to be a captain for St. Cloud State for the third straight season.

“I couldn’t wait to get back to school and that’s the biggest thing that tells me that I’m in the right place,” Schuldt said. “Everyone I’ve talked to who went back and played their senior year, they said, ‘You can’t replace it.’

“So far, it’s been awesome. My roommates are like my brothers. My teammates are some of my best friends. That’s not something I’d have forgiven myself for if I would have signed.”

Schuldt is also looking forward to trying to defend the NCHC regular season title, battling against Minnesota Duluth and trying to make a deeper run in the NCAA playoffs.

“It’s going to be a battle for all the teams in our conference,” Schuldt said of the NCHC, which has had the last three national champions (North Dakota in 2016, Denver in 2017, UMD in 2018). “Our conference is so deep and so tight together.

“We’re the team that plays UMD twice (in series) every year no matter what, so that rivalry in itself is huge, particularly with the accolades that both of our teams have had in the past year.”

Schuldt and Huskies senior forward Robby Jackson were named to the Preseason All-NCHC team. Perunovich and Shepard were also named to the team. The other two players named to the team are Colorado College forward Nick Halloran and Western Michigan forward Wade Allison.

In the preseason poll for the NCHC race, after the Bulldogs and Huskies, North Dakota was picked to finish third, followed by Western Michigan, Denver, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha and Miami.