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Top Chef

When the heat is on, it’s UMD’s opponents most likely to be chopped.

Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin addresses his team during UMD's five overtime 3-2 Midwest Regional Final win over North Dakota on March 27, 2021 at Scheels Arena in Fargo, ND. Photo by Russell Hons

The best chef in Northern Minnesota used to work at the Rustic Inn, owned by his parents in Castle Danger, on the North Shore. His productions were usually beautiful to look at and even better to taste. We once suggested we’d really like a good salad and he said, “OK,” and walked away from our table. He returned with a huge platter that easily fed four, with all sorts of diverse ingredients mixed into an unforgettable blend.

The next time we stopped there, we weren’t starving, so we asked if there was any way he could duplicate that salad — just the salad — as our lunch. He hesitated and said, “I have no idea what I put in that one.”

He’s working in the Twin Cities now, and my new nomination for the best chef in the region is Scott Sandelin. Yes, the coach of the UMD hockey team. I have no idea if he is a master on the outdoor grill or poaching an egg, but his master-chef status is assured each season, when he creates a hockey salad out of assorted players in a work of art that is different enough from previous seasons to take the full season to prepare. He must pick the ingredients, sometimes by trial and error, always by hunches and instincts, then sprinkle in some spices and herbs, and tossing the whole thing onto the NCAA Hockey Tournament platter, where it always comes out as a masterpiece.

If you ask Sandelin how he assembled this year’s Bulldogs and got them to knock off No. 1 ranked North Dakota to advance to their fourth consecutive NCAA Frozen Four, he might have no idea how he attempted to duplicate last year’s team — which might have been his best team, knocked out of a bid for a third straight championship by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and the immediate shutdown of all events nationwide.

Undeterred, the Bulldogs are making an unprecedented fourth consecutive trip to the Frozen Four, a feat that has caused college coaches all over the country to declare UMD as having the premier hockey program in the country. This spring, two other Minnesota teams — St. Cloud State and Minnesota State-Mankato — will challenge that claim, and try to prove that they, too, have created the best entree.

UMD goalie Zach Stejskal makes one of his 57 saves the hard way in the Bulldogs’ 3-2 5-OT Midwest Regional Final win over North Dakota on March 27, 2021 at Scheels Arena in Fargo, N.D.
Photo by Russell Hons

Among the new ingredients at UMD this season, Sandelin had to find a replacement for goaltender Hunter Shepard, who anchored the 2019 and 2019 championship teams and was at his best in 2019-2020. He did it with a pair of goalies, Ryan Fanti from Thunder Bay and Zach Stejskal, former Grand Rapids state tournament star. Sometimes it seemed Sandelin was blindfolded while reaching for salt or pepper, and whichever he chose made the salad work.

The early signing of Hobey Baker Award winner Scott Perunovich, the spectacular defenseman from Hibbing who signed with the St. Louis Blues after last season, left an irreplaceable hole. Sandelin calmly plugged in Wyatt Kaiser, right out of Andover High School and right into the most important and pivotal roles on defense.

Up front, Sandelin put some line combinations together and almost stubbornly kept them intact, with captain Noah Cates centering Quinn Olson and Nick Swaney on the first line, while brother Jackson Cates centered Cole Koepke and Tanner Laderoute on the second unit. That left Hermantown junior Jesse Jacques to center seniors Koby Bender and Kobe Roth on the third line, and about six skaters rotating in and out on the fourth line. By playoff time, that line had sophomore Luke Loheit centering freshman Blake Biondi, another of the Hermantown contingent, and Luke Mylymok, who hadn’t played for a month and scored only once in eight games.

When Sandelin saw a drop in production, he might move some of those forwards around, but they pretty much returned to his preconceived recipe. Often, an explosive rush by the speedy Bender, from Cloquet, or a brilliant set-up from Bender to Roth, from Warroad, would be the play of the game to inspire the Bulldogs. Or Koepke, an assistant captain as a junior from Hermantown, might prove how he can beat you with speed, with force, with a neat stick handling move, or, mostly, with a hard and deadly shot. Swaney, a senior from Lakeville, got his first collegiate hat trick in a 5-1 victory over St. Cloud State in perhaps the best Bulldog performance in his final game at AMSOIL Arena, and in the rematch at St. Cloud a week later, the revised third line, with Jackson Cates centering Roth and Bender, scored twice in a spirited rally from a 3-0 deficit, before third-unit freshman defenseman Connor Kelley from Maple Grove whistled in the third-period goal that forced overtime in a 4-3 loss to the Huskies to close the regular season and determine second place in the NCHC.

The point of such a varied display of game-breaking big plays was the key part of Sandelin’s winning recipe. Virtually every game, somebody different might rise up to make the game-winning play. That actually is the same formula that carried the Bulldogs to the 2017 Frozen Four and a championship game heartbreaking loss to Denver. One year later, Sandelin boldly sent five freshmen out to play defense, along with sophomore Nick Wolff, and then-sophomore Shepard in goal, and instead of being a problem, they led the Bulldogs to the 2018 championship, just because Sandelin’s trust flushed them with confidence. It happened again to capture the 2019 title, with a dominant 3-0 victory over UMass — the same foe in this Thursday night’s semifinals.

Frozen Four time, so it must be time for the UMD Bulldogs to hit an unbeatable peak. UMD will take on the University of Massachusetts in the second semifinal at Pittsburgh on Thursday, April 8, after St. Cloud State and Minnesota State-Mankato meet in the all Minnesota first semifinal. In the days leading up to the Frozen Four, UMD was the beneficiary for the second time of a COVID-19 outbreak, this one costing UMass its star goaltender and its leading goal-scorer among four players scratched from its roster.

 Nonetheless, UMD will take nothing for granted and will be hard-pressed to match its own  standard established in the Midwest Regional title game in Fargo, where the Bulldogs beat No. 1 ranked North Dakota 3-2 in a 5-overtime marathon.

When UMD was assigned to the Midwest Regional, it seemed unfair for the NCAA selection committee to pair the two long-time NCHC rivals in the same region. North Dakota beat American International 5-1, while UMD had the task of getting by Michigan to get to the regional final. The NCAA used to strive to avoid interconference matchups in the regionals, but now it seems more concerned about having three teams from one conference reaching the Frozen Four.

That scenario happened, but not exactly by design. Michigan dropped out of the tournament after testing positive for Covid-19, giving UMD a free pass to the final. Because of their intense rivalry, the final looked intriguing, even though North Dakota had won the league title and built a 22-5-1 overall record, while UMD finished third and was 14-10-2 overall.

The matchup lived up to its billing: North Dakota is the best team in the country and fully deserving of the No. 1 rank, but UMD simply doesn’t lose at NCAA tournament time.

True, in the last four years, UMD has made it to all three NCAA tournament Frozen Fours, with last year being cancelled, of course. In those three years, the Bulldogs seemed to spend much of the season smoothing out their balanced team concept and saving their best for last, when they recorded a cumulative 11-1 record in NCAA tournament games.

Why should this season be any different? Nobody knew if Sandelin’s final recipe would work against powerful North Dakota in the Fargo Regional, but that elusive Sandelin magic still prevailed.

Junior forward Coale Koepke (17) and senior Nick Swaney celebrate Koepke’s third period goal in UMD’s 3-2 Midwest Regional Final win over North Dakota on March 27, 2021 at Scheels Arena in Fargo, ND.
Photo by Russell Hons

In a game best suited to a time capsule, UMD broke a scoreless tie when Jackson Cates deflected one in at 3:21 of the third period, and barely a minute later, Cole Koepke broke free and, at speed, drilled a perfect 25-footer in off the left pipe. Stejskal was brilliant at the other end, holding the Fighting Hawks off the scoresheet. When the Hawks pulled goaltender Adam Scheel at the end, UMD made two uncharacteristic mistakes at a most critical time — the final two minutes. Not once, but twice the Bulldogs withstood the pressure of North Dakota’s forecheck but gave in to the temptation of firing the puck at the waiting empty net 150 feet away. Both times they missed, for icing calls. The face-offs came back to UMD’s end, and both times the puck didn’t leave the zone until they were picked out of the UMD net. The first one was a fluke ricochet by Collin Adams from the end boards, off the goaltender and in with 1:41 remaining, and the second when a shot from the left point deflected wide to the right, where North Dakota sniper Jordan Kawaguchi had a wide-open net to hit with 57 seconds left.

Then the game turned into a marathon. They played one overtime, then another, then a third and a fourth, but all failed to produce a winning goal, although throughout both teams sped back and forth, attacking and back checking as if unaware they should be too exhausted to continue. UMD’s third line, which had been a trigger throughout the last few weeks, came through for an apparent winner in the first overtime when Koby Bender raced up the left side, cut toward the middle, and fed a perfect pass across the slot where Kobe Roth one-timed his shot into the net. As the Bulldogs mobbed Roth, and the Fighting Hawks consoled goaltender Adam Scheel, the officials reviewed all aspects of the goal. They decided that when Bender rushed into the Hawk zone, he carried the puck on his left side, and an ever-so-slight bobble as he crossed the line meant, in their view, he didn’t have full control, as his back skate cleared the blue line about a millimeter or two before the puck did.

The play was ruled offside. No goal.

It was hard to imagine the Bulldogs were able to follow Sandelin’s demeanor, stay calm, and play on. They did that. In the fourth overtime, Stejskal went down near the goal and summoned help. No matter how much liquid he consumed, his body was cramping from dehydration, and Sandelin sent Fanti in. ESPN announcers sympathized with him for going in cold but because of Sandelin’s random hunch-playing, Fanti had played in UMD’s last previous game, so he wasn’t far from his best rhythm, which showed when he made a slick glove save immediately. He followed with several more over the final 17:36, as the teams went into the fifth overtime — making it the longest NCAA tournament game in college hockey history.

“He played great,” said Sandelin. “They both played great.”

Sandelin also defied gravity a bit when he didn’t use his full roster until late in the marathon. The fourth line, with Loheit centering little-used freshman Mylymok on the left and fellow freshman Biondi on the right, hadn’t hit the ice together through the first two “games” worth of ice time. Mylymok, in fact, hadn’t dressed for a game for a month.

“I sent them a player or two out there a couple times late in the third,” Sandelin said, “Then I thought, ‘They’re fresh,’ so I decided to use all four lines in the fourth overtime, and started getting them in there.”

Freshman forward Luke Mylymok (left) and fellow freshman Blake Biondi celebrate Mylymok’s game-winning goal in the fifth overtime of UMD’s 3-2 Midwest Regional Final win over North Dakota on March 27, 2021 at Scheels Arena in Fargo, ND.
Photo by Russell Hons

That, too, paid off in the fifth overtime. On the line’s, first turn, Mylymok, who had scored one goal all season, got the puck in his own zone and broke up the left boards. On fresh legs, he sped into the North Dakota zone, veered toward the slot and in one deft motion pulled the puck in toward his feet and shot, low and hard — through the legs of the screening defenseman and through the legs of Scheel in goal. This time the celebration didn’t stop. It came at 2:13 of the fifth overtime, after the teams had pushed the longest-game record to 142 minutes and 13 seconds.

Sandelin and North Dakota coach Brad Berry were teammates at North Dakota and later in pro hockey, and they share respect for each other and their coaching philosophies, and it carries over to their teams. There were no cheap hits or chippy penalties as the teams sped back and forth, and when it finally ended an hour or so into Sunday morning, Berry mingled on the ice with the celebrating UMD players to congratulate them. Fanti, UMD’s relief goalie, skated over into the North Dakota team gathering to congratulate Scheel.

That was a game for the ages, and a perfect sendoff for UMD’s fourth consecutive trip to the Frozen Four, where the Bulldogs will try for their third consecutive championship. Every team in the NCAA playoffs is determined to win, and UMD is no different. But Sandelin and the Bulldogs also have found the secret ingredient in the winning recipe: finding a way to avoid losing at tournament time.

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