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Short-handed UMD returns to NCHC play at North Dakota

Asked after Friday’s exhibition overtime win in Thunder Bay if he’d make any changes to the lineup other than goaltending, Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin answered with a simple, “No.”

In an ideal world, Sandelin would have liked to say, “Yes,” and give top-line forwards such as sophomores Alex Iafallo and Dominic Toninato the night off. That was his plan going into the exhibition series last weekend against Lakehead University. However, the No. 7-ranked Bulldogs found themselves short on bodies north of the border, and while their depth has improved for this weekend’s key NCHC series at No. 1 North Dakota, they are in danger of being short skaters should injuries and illness strike again.

The departure of freshman forward Brett Boehm, a season-ending back injury to sophomore center Sammy Spurrell and an illness for sophomore defenseman Dan Molenaar that will keep him out a couple more weeks has left the Bulldogs with one extra defenseman and one extra forward this weekend in Grand Forks.

Both teams are chasing an NCHC title with the Bulldogs tied with Miami for first place and North Dakota two points back in fourth. In between is Nebraska-Omaha, a point back of the leaders.

Despite the stakes, Sandelin said he isn’t concerned about the lack of extra skaters.

“We have plenty of guys to play. If we have to move some guys around if things get worse, that’s the way it is,” Sandelin said. “We have a lot of guys who can fill in at a lot of different spots.”

The Bulldogs will have to play the RedHawks and Mavericks back-to-back the final two weekends in February with Miami hosting the Bulldogs Feb. 20-21 and Omaha visiting Duluth Feb. 27-28. If the team is shorthanded by then due to injuries, don’t expect Sandelin to be much more concerned than he is now. The Bulldogs fought through it before.

At least six Bulldogs missed games due to injuries in the first half. Molenaar missed the first nine games of the season to injury and senior wing Justin Crandall missed the second weekend of the season against Minnesota State-Mankato. Senior captain and wing Adam Krause was lost for a month with a broken wrist the following weekend against Denver. He was later joined on the injured list by Boehm, Spurrell and freshman defenseman Nick McCormack.

Sophomore wing Kyle Osterberg injured his knee while weight lifting over the holiday break, causing him to miss the series in Thunder Bay. He’s back to play against North Dakota this weekend.

Sandelin never had to fill out a line chart that was short of 12 forwards and six defensemen, but he was left without any extras some nights. Still, the Bulldogs won six-straight games with a bruised and battered lineup, sweeping St. Cloud State and Minnesota along the way.  

“When I went out, we didn’t even skip a beat,” Krause said. “We had guys who filled right in like nothing happened. That’s huge on a team, especially when we’ve been put in situations like we’ve had, and we could be put in during the second half. We’re ready to roll. We have guys who are playing limited minutes who can play big minutes. That’s huge.”

The first half proved the team has depth with 19 of the 21 skaters available in the second half having played at least 10 regular season games and the other two having played in at least six contests. Of those 21, 18 have registered points and 15 have scored goals.

But the Bulldogs aren’t only deep, they’re versatile. Sandelin has used at least 16 players on the power play and at least 14 skaters on the penalty kill during the regular season. Five-on-five, skaters such as Crandall and junior forward Cal Decowski have both played on three different lines this year with Decowski playing both center and wing. Freshman center Jared Thomas and junior wings Austin Farley, Charlie Sampair and Austyn Young have all been shuffled around, too, with Farley playing on the top line alongside Iafallo and Toninato.  

“There are some guys who are goal scorers like Toninato and other guys are big energy guys like myself and Crandall,” Osterberg said. “Everyone on our team has a role, but you can put any guy anywhere and he’ll do the right thing,”

The only scenario the Bulldogs didn’t encounter in the first half was using forwards as defensemen or vice versa. If it came to that, Sandelin still wouldn’t be overly concerned. What defenseman wouldn’t want to play forward, he asked.

“Depth is a big part of our success,” Crandall said. “It’s tough only having a couple extra guys, but taking care of yourself on and off the ice is a big part of it. Guys are smart. We all have the same goal.

“We put ourselves in a good spot. That doesn’t mean a whole lot unless you keep working toward it. That was a great first half, especially in our league, but it doesn’t get any easier.”

College men’s hockey Minnesota Duluth (12-6) at North Dakota (13-4-2)

What: NCHC series

When: 7:37 p.m. today, 7:07 p.m. Saturday

Where: Ralph Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, N.D.

Television: My9 (today), CBS Sports Network (Saturday)

Radio: KZIO-FM 94.1/104.3

Internet: www.94xrocks.com (audio); www.nchc.tv/umd (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