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College men's hockey: Bulldogs' Wolff now seasoned vet, leader among young defensemen

Steve Kuchera / Minnesota Duluth sophomore defenseman Nick Wolff is congratulated by fans and teammates after scoring a goal during an Oct. 7 game against Michigan Tech at Amsoil Arena.

Not only did Minnesota Duluth defenseman Nick Wolff get to play amongst four seniors on the back end a year ago, he spent his freshman season partnered with a seasoned veteran defenseman in Dan Molenaar.

A year later, the 21-year-old Wolff finds himself as the most experienced Bulldog on the blue line after playing 37 games as a rookie. Surrounding him now can be anywhere from 3-4 freshmen defensemen per night with one of those rookies, 19-year-old Scott Perunovich of Hibbing, being his defensive partner.

It's been a major adjustment for the sophomore from Eagan, Minn., but he's embracing his role as a leader on and off the ice. Wolff said he wants to do for this year's freshmen class what players such as Molenaar, Brenden Kotyk, Carson Soucy and Willie Raskob did for him last season.

"Hopefully I can fill that role and help them out where they need it on and off the ice," said Wolff, whose team plays a nonconference series at the University of Maine at 6 p.m. today and 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Orono. "That's the thing about those older guys. It was on and off the ice. They helped in the classroom, they helped socially. It wasn't all about hockey."

Wolff only played in two of the Bulldogs' first six games his freshman year before finally cementing a spot in the lineup during the Week 4 home sweep of North Dakota that opened NCHC play in late October. He missed just one game after that — Nov. 18 at Nebraska-Omaha — and with each week he saw his role increase.

When Soucy missed seven games late last season, including the NCHC tournament and NCAA Northeast Regional, it was Wolff who stepped up and filled that void until Soucy returned for the Frozen Four in Chicago.

Wolff, who took part in the Calgary Flames' development camp this offseason as an undrafted free agent, finished his freshman season with two goals, 10 assists, 25 blocked shots, a plus-14 rating and 15 penalties for 30 minutes.

But that was all while playing alongside Molenaar, Soucy, Raskob and Kotyk — players who Wolff credited for always having his back when he made mistakes.

Now Wolff is the one covering for a group of youngsters who play a much different style than the Bulldogs' 2016-17 defensive group.

Perunovich said Wolff is not only doing a great job covering up any of his rookie mistakes, Wolff also has provided him a boost of confidence, Perunovich said.

"He's a great guy to have in my corner on and off the ice," Perunovich said. "After every shift he's always talking to me about the good things I did and helping me out with the bad things I did as well. It's always nice to have someone like that to help me and look up to."

Through six games this season, Wolff has one goal, a plus-1 rating, 13 blocked shots and six penalties for 13 minutes.

That last stat — the penalty minutes — was something that wasn't sitting well with coach Scott Sandelin, especially after Wolff took a pair of penalties in the third period of a 5-5 tie at home against Merrimack last Friday.

Sandelin called Wolff an effective player, especially on the penalty kill. UMD needs him to stay out of the penalty box, the coach said.

"He's a big body," Sandelin said of the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Wolff. "I think his stick is great. He's really learned to use his stick. He can play with an edge, but don't cross the line. That's one of the things we discussed the other day. I thought he did that last year."

Sandelin said Wolff played his best game this season last Saturday in the 7-2 rout of Merrimack. Wolff, who never lacks effort, looked like the player he was at the end of 2016-17, a quiet defenseman who wasn't pushing to do too much, Sandelin said.

Wolff said he was trying to do way too much on the ice in the first five games this year. He said he was compelled to not only do more on the ice as the team's veteran defenseman, but to keep up with his defensive partner, Perunovich.

A heart-to-heart with the coaching staff after the 5-5 tie helped Wolff come to the realization that he doesn't need to do all that, he said.

"Scotty's a heck of a player. Watching the guy, he can fly up the ice. I don't know how he does it," Wolff said. "I thought I could be like that, too. I'll gladly give him the puck and he can do that. Starting out, I thought as the older guy I had to do all this stuff. After last Friday, I sat down with the coaches and they said I don't have to be anything special out here. Just play my role, do my job. That will help the team more than if I did more."

No. 10 UMD (2-2-2) AT MAINE (2-2)

What: Nonconference series

When: 6 p.m. Friday/6:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Harold Alfond Sports Arena, Orono, Maine

TV: My9

Radio: KDAL-AM 610/KDAL-FM 103.9

Internet: (audio)/ (video)

Twitter: @mattwellens

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