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Youthful Minnesota Duluth squad takes another step by taking part in NCAA tournament

The ice at the Denny Sanford Premier Center is ready for this weekend's NCAA West Regional. Photo courtesy of Denny Sanford Premier Center1 / 3
The scoreboard at the Denny Sanford Premier Center already displays the NCAA West Regional first semifinal between St. Cloud State and Air Force. Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State-Mankato meet in the second semifinal. Photo courtesy of Denny Sanford Premier Center2 / 3
Minnesota Duluth celebrates their defeat of Boston in overtime during their NCAA Northeast Regional final hockey game Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Scheels Arena, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service file photo3 / 3

DULUTH, Minn.—Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin often talks about "the process" his teams go through each and every college hockey season, and in 2017-18 he has 10 freshmen who are going through everything for the first time.

The various ups and downs of a 34-to-36-game regular season are the first few steps of the process, as is playing in a first-round conference playoff series.

Sandelin considered last weekend's NCHC Frozen Faceoff a major step in the process for his Bulldogs, even if the results didn't go the program's way.

"It's really important guys get to experience these games," Sandelin said Saturday after a 4-1 loss to North Dakota. "I told them after, 'It's hard to win at this time of the year. It's hard.' Tonight was just like what you are going to see if you do advance. It's do-or-die.

"It's good for those guys to be in that and get the understanding of how hard it is."

Today, third-seeded UMD takes another big step in the process when it hits the ice for practice at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., in preparation for an NCAA West Regional semifinal matchup against second-seeded Minnesota State-Mankato at 6:30 p.m. Friday.

Top-seeded St. Cloud State and fourth-seeded Air Force play in Friday's early semifinal, with the winners meeting at 8 p.m. Saturday for a spot in the Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

UMD is making its fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, having advanced out of the semifinals to the regional final each of the previous three seasons. The Bulldogs won the West a year ago in Fargo, N.D., to advance to the Frozen Four. Only 16 players, however, remain from that team, including 10 who played in the two overtime victories.

"I think it's really important to go through all those steps," Sandelin said Sunday of the process. "To have the opportunity to move on and see what the NCAA tournament is about — hopefully you can go beyond that — but you have to go to those things. You have to experience it. You can talk about it. The older guys can talk about it, but you have to go through it. Now it's a reality. It's a good learning curve for everybody."

The 2017-18 Bulldogs are full of youth, but they also come to Sioux Falls with a senior class that has plenty of experience going through almost every step of the process.

All six seniors — Karson Kuhlman, Nick McCormack, Avery Peterson, Jared Thomas, Sammy Spurrell and Blake Young — have been part of NCAA tournament teams the last four seasons. Peterson was at Nebraska-Omaha for his first NCAA tournament appearance in 2014-15, while Spurrell, a fifth-year senior, missed the NCAA tourney with the 2013-14 Bulldogs.

Kuhlman of Esko and Thomas of Hermantown are the only two Bulldogs to have played in the NCAA tournament each of the last three seasons.

Young, who played in last year's OT wins in Fargo, said there is a lot to learn from a weekend like this as a player whether suiting up or not. The key is being there, because veterans can talk all they want about how different this time of year is in the college hockey season, but players need to experience it for themselves.

"It's really hard to make that 16-team tournament," Young said. "It shows you have to play a full season of great hockey to get there. Making it those first three years, it emphasized how hard it was. It's a good lesson to pass down to the younger generation."

Bulldogs sophomore wing Joey Anderson, who played in last year's regional and the Frozen Four, said the intensity is what ratchets up the most this time of year, and it can catch a team off guard, especially as it escalates at each and every level.

It started last weekend in St. Paul against a Denver team that was looking to get back into form for another NCAA title. On Saturday, the Bulldogs ran into a Fighting Hawks squad that needed a win to have any chance to advancing to the regionals.

"This weekend we're going to see the most competitive hockey most of these guys have ever seen before," Anderson said. "Teams are fighting for their lives. North Dakota on Saturday, they didn't know what their fate was. You'll see more of that, especially this weekend. It is win or go home. That intensity raises and you see a very desperate hockey team and that's the team we have to be this weekend. We have to be so desperate for pucks, we have to be so desperate to win battles. It has to be that never-say-die attitude no matter what happens."

Despite winning the WCHA's MacNaughton Cup as regular-season champs in three of the last four seasons (they shared it with Michigan Tech in 2015-16), this is the first trip to the NCAA tournament for Minnesota State since 2015 when it also won the MacNaughton outright.

Four players remain from that 2014-15 Mavericks squad, though only two who played in the tight 2-1 first-round loss to RPI.

Despite the Mavs' lack of NCAA tournament experience, junior wing Parker Mackay said the Bulldogs' most recent encounter with the Mavs — a 1-0 Jan. 23 loss in Mankato — tells him they're a team that is built to do damage this weekend and beyond.

"They are an older team. They have some experience and are fast," Mackay said of the Mavericks. "They are a strong team, heavy on defense and we have to try to figure out how to get some pucks past the goaltender."

2018 NCAA West Regional

At Sanford Center, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Friday's semifinals

• No. 1 St. Cloud State (25-8-6) vs. No. 4 Air Force (22-14-5), 3 p.m. (ESPNU)

• No. 2 Minnesota State-Mankato (29-9-1) vs. No. 3 Minnesota Duluth (21-16-3), 6:30 p.m. (WatchESPN.com)

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

(218) 723-5317
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