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College men's hockey: UMD's Tufte muscling way onto scoresheet and, perhaps, US junior team

Minnesota Duluth sophomore wing Riley Tufte (27) checks Minnesota's Ryan Zuhlsdorf (20) into the wall during a game earlier this season at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Tufte leads the Bulldogs in goals with five going into this weekend's series at St. Cloud State. (Clint Austin / / 2
News Tribune file photo Minnesota Duluth sophomore wing Riley Tufte brings the puck around behind the goal against Michigan Tech earlier this season at Amsoil Arena.2 / 2

It's no secret Minnesota Duluth sophomore wing Riley Tufte covets a place on the 2018 U.S. Junior National Team and Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin is well aware of Tufte's aspirations.

That's why Sandelin sat Tufte down for a chat at the start of the season.

"I told him, 'If you start to worry about that stuff through the first half, you're not going to play very well,' " Sandelin said. "He's done a good job blocking that out."

Sandelin couldn't have given any better advice, because it's exactly what Team USA head coach Bob Motzko told Tufte and everyone else who took part in the World Junior Summer Showcase this summer. Tufte has taken the coaches' advice to heart thus far, and as a result he's had a solid start for UMD.

Tufte, a 2016 first-round draft pick of the Dallas Stars out of Blaine High School, has a team-best five goals and seven points going into the eighth-ranked Bulldogs' trip this weekend to play Motzko's second-ranked St. Cloud State Huskies at 7:37 p.m. Friday and 4:07 p.m. Saturday to open NCHC play.

Tufte called the opportunity to play in the 2018 World Junior Championship Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Buffalo, N.Y., "pretty cool" — especially since the U.S. will play an outdoor game against Canada — but he's not letting it all get to his head.

"You have to go out there and play your game and the rest will do itself," Tufte said. "You can only control what you can control. I try not to think of it too much."

Tufte was one of four Bulldogs along with sophomore wing Joey Anderson and freshmen defensemen Mikey Anderson and Dylan Samberg to participate in the weeklong camp and series of exhibitions put on by USA Hockey over the summer in Michigan. Another camp for those on the U.S. preliminary roster — announced in early December — will take place Dec. 15-19 in Columbus, Ohio.

While camps are a key component to the World Juniors selection process, Motzko said what really matters is how players perform in October and November. Motzko, who is in his 13th season at St. Cloud State and second season coaching Team USA, used Joey Anderson as an example. Anderson was sent home from the 2016 summer camp, but after a strong first half with the Bulldogs he landed a spot on the 2017 team and helped the U.S. win gold in Canada.

"We played Duluth right off the bat and as we're getting ready to play UMD, I'm watching film going, 'Holy Toledo, this kid is a good hockey player. He needs to be back on our radar,' " Motzko said. "Not only did he get back on our radar, he made the team as one of our top players."

Motzko said Tufte has been on Team USA's radar this fall thanks to his offensive output.

Tufte posted a goal in both wins at Maine a week ago, with Sandelin calling last Saturday's game against the Black Bears Tufte's best of the season. Tufte used his size that night and had good body position, among other things, Sandelin said.

"Consistency with that is going to be a key," the UMD coach said. "When he does that, he's more engaged in the game. With that big frame, he has the ability to lean on people. I thought he had a good stick. He was harder on pucks. All those things were real good. He has to stay with that type of game."

Tufte said learning to use his 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame was a point of emphasis for him during the offseason. While he's been blessed with the gift of speed, Tufte said using his body more opens up opportunities for him along the boards and in front of the net. He's able to better protect the puck and get pucks into the zone easier, he said.

The emphasis has not gone unnoticed by Tufte's teammates. Bulldogs captain Karson Kuhlman, who's played wing opposite Tufte on a line with freshman center Justin Richards the last five games, said Tufte makes the game easier for those around him.

"The physicality is really coming into its own, which is great to see," Kuhlman said. "That to go along with the skating and his hand skills, it's all coming together for him right now."

NO. 8 UMD (4-2-2) AT NO. 2 ST. CLOUD STATE (5-0)

What: NCHC openers

When: 7:37 p.m. Friday/4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Herb Brooks National Hockey Center, St. Cloud

TV: Fox Sports North-Plus

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