BUFFALO – Justin Richards looked around the ice at all the people celebrating around him and all he saw was people who have done nothing but win. That’s because he plays for the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs and they do a lot of that, including Saturday night when they performed surgery on one of the most dynamic teams in the country in a 3-0 win over UMass-Amherst in the championship game of the Frozen Four.
It’s remarkable really. The majority of the roster is made up of freshman and sophomores, players who have no idea what it is like not to finish a season with a championship. Defenseman Dylan Samberg, a second-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets in 2017, won back-to-back small school state titles in Minnesota before picking up two national championships with the Bulldogs. All but the three seniors – Parker Mackay, Peter Krieger and Billy Exell – have been to the championship game in every year they’ve played college hockey.
And that’s why Richards, the son of Tampa Bay Lightning assistant coach Todd Richards and a forward on the all-tournament team, thinks the Bulldogs will be back again next years. “I’m thinking I’m coming back next year,” the sophomore said. “And I’m excited. We can do whatever. We’re the team to beat.”
With the number of returning players they have at their disposal, there’s no reason to believe the Bulldogs won’t make another serious run for a title in 2020. They have only three graduating players and while some may turn pro – sophomore defensemen Scott Perunovich (a St. Louis Blues prospect), Samberg and Mikey Anderson (a Los Angeles Kings prospect) on defense and senior forward Riley Tufte, a Dallas Stars first-rounder in 2016, are possibilities. “If they’re ready, they’re ready,” said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin. “We’d obviously love to have kids stay as long as they can.”
The same could be said for Sandelin, who won his second national title with the program and will undoubtedly garner some interest from NHL teams. One thing is certain. If there’s an NHL team with a coaching vacancy that needs help on the defensive side of the puck, it should be calling Sandelin. The Bulldogs struggled at points this season, dropping a back-to-back to St. Cloud State to end the regular season, but was a playoff juggernaut. They allowed one goal in two games during the Frozen Four and it could be argued that if UMass had scored on all their Grade A chances in the final, maybe the game would have been tied and gone into overtime. Maybe. That’s how dominant the Bulldogs were. In fact, their shutdown game was so masterful they looked like the college equivalent of the Canadian Olympic team in Sochi. Their puck possession in both ends of the ice was masterful and when they didn’t have the puck, they suffocated their opponents until they got it back.
“We play so hard that teams don’t really get a whole lot,” Richards said. “Even one of the most explosive teams in college hockey (in UMass) and we didn’t give up a lot. There were a couple of flurries in front of the net and those were the only looks they got all night. Even on the power play, they didn’t get many good looks. We knew coming in we had to slow them down and we did.”
As a player for four years at the University of North Dakota, Sandelin missed out on winning a championship by one year at both ends of his career as North Dakota won national titles the year before he got there and the year after he left. A second-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 1982, Sandelin played in only 25 NHL games, but clearly was listening to his coaches all those years in the minors. The NHL should be beckoning for a coach who has accomplished everything there is to accomplish at the college level. There were whispers during the Frozen Four that the Philadelphia Flyers might be a possibility. The Buffalo Sabres, who are looking for a coach themselves, didn’t even have to leave their building to see how good Sandelin is. And it’s not as though he’s priced himself out of the NHL. He makes only $350,000 at Minnesota-Duluth, which is an enormous bargain.
“Well, I’ve got a job right now, right?” Sandelin said. “And I’ve had a lot of fun doing it. I like the area and that’s not the only reason because I’ve lived in a lot of different places. I’m not really too worried about it. If somebody comes calling, I’ll listen.”