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NCHC champion Bulldogs open NCAA tournament against Ohio State in Fargo

Members of the Minnesota Duluth hockey team reacts to a comment on the NCAA selection show on Sunday. Steve Kuchera /

While Bulldogs fans may be hard to find this weekend at the NCAA West Regional in Fargo, N.D., the Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team will be surrounded by plenty of familiar faces nonetheless.

The top-seed and NCHC Frozen Faceoff Champion Bulldogs will open the 2017 NCAA tournament against fourth-seeded Ohio State at 5:30 p.m. on Friday at Scheels Arena with the winner taking on either second-seeded Boston University or third-seed and host North Dakota at 5 p.m. on Saturday in the West Regional Championship.

Minnesota Duluth hockey players Alex Iafallo (left) Riley Tufte (back) and Neal PionkBulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said it’s nice to play close to home this year after getting shipped to the Northeast the previous two seasons. Unfortunately, North Dakota fans already bought up every ticket inside the 5,300-seat Scheels Arena.

“No matter where you play, it’s tough,” Sandelin said. “Seeing Ohio State, we know they’re fast, they can score. But we’ve seen a lot of that. We’ve seen a lot of different teams this year. I’m just excited for our guys. Unfortunately, it’d be great for our fans if all the North Dakota people didn’t buy the tickets.”

The Buckeyes, who were the last at-large team to get into the field of 16, are coached by former Sandelin assistant Steve Rohlik, who was with UMD for 10 seasons from 2000-10. Rohlik wasn’t at UMD when it won the NCAA championship in 2011, but he helped recruit most of the players on that roster.

Rohlik left Duluth in 2010 to become an assistant at Ohio State under Mark Osiecki for three seasons before replacing Osiecki as head coach in 2013.

Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team captain Dominic ToninatoCurrent Bulldogs assistant coach Brett Larson, who was originally with UMD for three seasons between 2008-11, was an assistant under Rohlik for two seasons before coming back to his hometown of Duluth in 2015.

“I coached half the team and helped recruit the other half,” Larson said of the Buckeyes. “I’m excited for our team first and foremost. We’ve worked really hard to get to this spot. We know that we have to go through really good teams no matter where you go or who you play. At the same time, I’m excited for (Ohio State) to see that their program has continued to build and move in the right direction.”

The other familiar faces are those on the opposite side of the West Regional bracket — the Fighting Hawks and Terriers.

Boston University ended the Bulldogs 2014-15 season two years ago in the NCAA Northeast Regional championship in Manchester, N.H., getting a controversial late power play goal. Only nine Terriers — seven who played — remain from that team.

The Hawks are very fresh in UMD’s minds. The Bulldogs beat the Hawks 4-3 at Target Center in Minneapolis on Saturday night for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff Championship. It was UMD’s sixth-straight win over the Hawks dating back to the 2016 Frozen Faceoff semifinals.

As hosts, North Dakota was guaranteed to play in Fargo as long as it made the NCAA tournament. The 1-0 semifinal win over Denver clinched that.

If UMD does meet North Dakota for a sixth time in 2016-17, UMD senior Brenden Kotyk isn’t worried about the sea of green inside Scheels Arena.

“Every time we played them, it’s basically been like a home game for them,” Kotyk said. “We’re used to it. I think we kind of thrive in an environment where other teams are against us.”

This will be UMD’s third-straight trip to the NCAA tournament and fifth appearance in seven seasons. The Bulldogs, who are making their 11th overall NCAA tournament appearance, lost a year ago to Boston College in the Northeast Regional championship in Worcester, Mass.

2017 NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament

West Regional

At Fargo, N.D.

  1. Minnesota Duluth vs. 4. Ohio State
  2. Boston University vs. No. 3 North Dakota

Midwest Regional

At Cincinnati

  1. Denver vs. 4 Michigan Tech
  2. Union vs. 3. Penn State

Northeast Regional

At Manchester, N.H.

  1. Minnesota vs. 4 Notre Dame
  2. UMass-Lowell vs. 3. Cornell

East Regional

At Providence, R.I.

  1. Harvard vs. 4. Providence
  2. Western Michigan vs. 3. Air Force
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