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UMD men's hockey: Fanti leads Bulldogs into NCAA tournament focused, but humble following Frozen Faceoff

The Thunder Bay native stole the show in the NCHC tournament, posting back-to-back shutouts at the Frozen Faceoff at Xcel Energy Center last weekend.

Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey prepares for NCAA Regional game against Michigan Tech
Minnesota Duluth goaltender Ryan Fanti (39) makes a save during a practice session on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, at Budwieser Events Center in Loveland, Colorado.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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LOVELAND, Colo. — Ryan Fanti’s run in goal for Minnesota Duluth through the 2022 NCHC tournament has fans comparing the junior goaltender to his predecessor in the Bulldogs’ net — Hunter Shepard.

A unknown who took over the UMD net after sitting for an entire season, Shepard always took his game to another level in the postseason, going 8-0 with a .953 save percentage and 0.97 goals against average as UMD’s goaltender of record in the NCAA tournament while winning back-to-back NCAA titles.

Fanti enters the Bulldogs’ NCAA regional semifinal against Michigan Tech at 2 p.m. Thursday in Loveland, Colorado with a .958 save percentage and 1.20 GAA in his last four playoff games. The NCHC Goaltender of the Year posted back-to-back shutouts last weekend of Denver and Western Michigan at Xcel Energy Center to lead UMD to its third Frozen Faceoff championship.

While the postseason stats may share a similarity, those who have practiced and played with both Fanti and Shepard over the years know they’re entirely different people.

Shepard was known as a quirky kind of guy, even for goaltenders, but Fanti, not so much, UMD redshirt senior goalie Ben Patt said.

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“He's not the most superstitious guy, either, so there's none of that crazy stuff before the game or anything,” Patt said of Fanti. “He keeps it pretty loose. So just the regular thing that comes with being a goalie, I think he has.”

Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey prepares for NCAA Regional game against Michigan Tech
Volunteer assistant coach Brant Nicklin talks with Minnesota Duluth goaltender Ryan Fanti (39) during a practice session on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, at Budwieser Events Center in Loveland, Colorado.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Fanti said everyone on the team has their own quirks when it comes to pregame routines and such. But the Thunder Bay native said he likes to create a clean slate for his mind before a game, something he started doing back in juniors playing for the Cloquet-based Minnesota Wilderness of the NAHL.

“I used to have a lot of superstitions in juniors, and it kind of got to my head more than anything,” Fanti said. “I’d realize midway through the second period, ‘Ah darn, I forgot to do this or I didn't do this,’ and then I'd be in my own head about things. I’ve slowly gotten away from that.”

A personality trait Fanti and Shepard do share is being humble, teammates say. That’s why its necessary to pump Fanti’s tires now and then, like after the toe and glove save made with 4:36 to go in the second period Saturday to keep the Bulldogs up 2-0 in the Frozen Faceoff final.

Fanti called it, “a lucky save” after the game, but UMD sophomore goaltender Zach Stejskal said the team made sure Fanti knew it was more than that.

“His compete level is off the charts right now,” Stejskal said. “That was seen last weekend on Saturday with that glove save. That was the most incredible thing I've ever seen out of him, honestly, like, unbelievable.”

Asked about the save again Wednesday in Loveland following the team’s practice at the Budweiser Events Center, Fanti continued to downplay the puck that he said kicked down broadway before “falling and flailing” to throw whatever he could at the shot. Luckily it found his glove.

Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey prepares for NCAA Regional game against Michigan Tech
Minnesota Duluth goaltender Ryan Fanti (39) talks to the media during a press conference on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, at Budwieser Events Center in Loveland, Colorado.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Fanti said the most important part of that whole sequence was the penalty kill that followed. Freshman defenseman Owen Gallatin was called for interference away from the play, but UMD killed the penalty to preserve the 2-0 lead.

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That was an example of the strong defense that the team has been playing in the postseason. Fanti has been good, but the goalie said it’s not all him.

“You need to play so tight defensively this time of year,” Fanti said. “You really don’t have time to have a slow start or make any big mistakes that are costly. You need to keep the ball rolling and make sure you're tight as a team.”

Bulldogs battle-tested

Of the 16 teams in this year’s NCAA tournament, no school has played more games against NCAA tournament teams than the Bulldogs.

UMD played 25 games against tourney teams this year, going 12-11-2. While their .520 winning percentage ranks eighth, the 12 wins are the most.

The Bulldogs enter the NCAA tournament on four straight wins, all against NCAA tournament opponents, sweeping an NCHC quarterfinal series at St. Cloud State and then beating two No. 1 seeds in Western Michigan and Denver — the top seed/host in Loveland — for the NCHC postseason title.

The Bulldogs struggled prior to the NCHC postseason. While currently on a four-game winning streak, UMD closed the regular season by going 6-9-3 after Christmas. Their .523 winning percentage (10-9-3) since the holiday break is the second worst of all the teams in this year’s tournament, topping just SCSU’s .500 mark (8-8-4).

After an inconsistent regular season, Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said he likes where his team is at going into the NCAA tournament.

“There's always ups and downs, we all want it to go as smooth as possible,” Sandelin said. “This team … they've done a lot of really good things over the year. Maybe we haven't been as consistent as we want to be, but right now I like where our mindset is, I like that we've got some confidence. I like that we've got a little momentum and we've got to use that moving forward here tomorrow.”

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Huskies overtime-tested

During their run of seven straight NCAA tournament appearances — the longest active streak in the NCAA — the Bulldogs have played in seven overtime tourney games, with last year’s five-overtime victory over North Dakota in the regional final in Fargo being the most famous.

The Bulldogs are 6-1 in those seven games going back to the 2015-16 tournament, when two OTs were required to get by Providence in the regional semifinals in Worcester, Massachusetts, with the lone loss coming in the NCAA Frozen Four last year against Massachusetts in the national semifinals.

Enter Thursday’s opponent, the Michigan Tech Huskies, who played in 13 overtime games this season, going 4-6-3. While most were 3-on-3 overtime periods, they did play a pair of 5-on-5 OT periods during the CCHA playoffs when Ferris State took the Huskies to overtime in Games 1 and 2 of the series. Tech won both, including Game 2 in double OT.

“We have a lot of veteran players that step up in big moments,” said Huskies senior forward Trenton Bliss. “We have an elite goaltender in Blake (Pietila). When the stage is big, he’s playing at his best. He kept us in those games. For us, we're going to win a game however it is. If we got to win it 1-0, we're going to win it 1-0. If we have to win it 6-5, we’re going to win it 6-5. We’re just going to do whatever it takes.”

Despite his player’s confidence, Huskies coach Joe Shawhan doesn’t see Thursday’s game being a 6-5 game.

“Expectations are it will be a low-scoring game, and a chance of being a one-goal game,” said Shawhan, whose team is 0-5-1 against NCAA tournament teams this season. “With us, a chance of being overtime. So we we're looking forward to a great hockey game.”

Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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