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Bulldogs looking forward to the big dance

The University of Minnesota Duluth men's hockey team is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 1992-93 season. The Bulldogs (26-12-4) are currently ranked fifth in the nation after finishing second in the Western Collegiate Hock...

The University of Minnesota Duluth men's hockey team is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 1992-93 season.

The Bulldogs (26-12-4) are currently ranked fifth in the nation after finishing second in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season and third at last week's WCHA Final Five.

UMD will meet the Spartans of Michigan State (23-16-2) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in Grand Rapids, Mich., in the Midwest Regional.

To start the year 2004, the Bulldogs ran off an impressive 14-game unbeaten streak going 13-0-1 in the process. The 'Dogs had little time to look in the rearview mirror because North Dakota continued to match UMD win for win.

This season the Bulldogs have restored enthusiasm at the once quiet Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. With accomplishments like a regular season sweep of the two-time defending National Champion Minnesota Gophers, the Bulldogs have been making believers out of fans with each game played.

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The Bulldogs opened the WCHA playoffs with a 2-1 series victory over Minnesota State-Mankato. UMD then went on to the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul. The Bulldogs fell to the Gophers 7-4 in the semifinals and rebounded to defeat Alaska-Anchorage 4-2 in the third place game.

UMD has taken things one game at a time all season, and the playoffs are no different. Although there is added intensity because the postseason is now do or die, UMD knows what it's up against.

"Playoffs are a little bigger deal than the regular season," said freshman forward Jeff McFarland. "It's much more intense out there."

Coach Scott Sandelin in his fourth season has helped put UMD back on the hockey map since he has taken over the program. Sandelin said it means a lot to him that his team is competing in the NCAA Tournament.

Many people would look at Sandelin's record at UMD and say he has done a great job in his four years. Last season was a turnaround year when the Bulldogs went 22-15-5 and narrowly missed the NCAA tournament. In his first two seasons at UMD, Sandelin was a combined 20-52-7. The coach says he did not have a four-year plan and wanted success immediately.

"I wanted to win right away," said Sandelin.

The reason Sandelin points to as the key to UMD's success is their team-first attitude.

"I said it at the end of last year, we may have not had the best team talent-wise, but we were the best team at the end of the year," said Sandelin.

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It has been well-noted what senior forward and Hobey Baker candidate Junior Lessard has accomplished this season, but even he gives credit to his linemate Evan Schwabe for his accolades.

"We're shy on superstars," said sophomore defenseman Ryan Swanson. "We all play together."

"Everybody knows their role," said McFarland.

There are 16 teams remaining, with four teams in four regions. New Hampshire, New York, Michigan and Colorado are all sites for the regional tournaments. Joining UMD and Michigan State in Grand Rapids in the other semifinal game are Minnesota and Notre Dame.

The winners of each game will meet for a spot in the NCAA Frozen Four at the Fleet Center in Boston, Mass., April 8-10.

The Bulldogs are the No. 2 seed in the Midwest regional. Earlier in the season UMD lost to Michigan State 5-4.

Though both Sandelin and his players agree that they are a different team now than they were five months ago, they think the game may help them this time around.

"It may give us a little motivation," said McFarland, who scored his first collegiate goal in the game against Michigan State. "It would be nice to get some payback."

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The key to UMD furthering its success this season is the goaltending of sophomore Isaac Reichmuth. With a record of 21-8-4, the Bulldogs will rely on Reichmuth to be solid the rest of the way.

Another important factor for the Bulldogs is the recent injuries to players like Tyler Brosz, who has been out with a separated shoulder. Defenseman Tim Hambly has missed some time with a sore knee. In the last game against Alaska-Anchorage, Lessard injured his leg in the second period and did not return. His status for Saturday is uncertain.

The Bulldogs would love to get payback in a possible regional final match-up against Minnesota, but know the task at hand is Michigan State.

"I want to play them again," said McFarland about a possible rematch with Minnesota.

"If they look too far ahead, they won't beat Michigan State," said Sandelin.

Saturday's game can be seen on Channel 19 in Duluth at 2:30 p.m.

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