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College men's hockey: UMD freshman Perunovich off to flying start

News Tribune file photo Minnesota Duluth defenseman Scott Perunovich handles the puck during a game against Michigan Tech earlier this season at Amsoil Arena. He sits alone atop the Bulldogs scoring charts with two goals and nine assists in 14 games.

Making a successful jump from the junior or high school level to the NCAA Division I ranks requires more than just making adjustments on the ice.

There are plenty of challenges a young player can face off the ice, too, such as academics, living on his own for the first time and, in the case of Hibbing native Scott Perunovich, air travel.

The Bulldogs have flown to Maine and Miami earlier this season and have four more road trips to make this season. As a 16-year-old traveling with Team USA to the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup, Perunovich admitted he wasn't "a big fan of flying," and that he had to be "calmed down on the plane" en route to Slovakia.

Now 19 years old, Perunovich said his tolerance for air travel has improved.

"I'm actually handling them a lot better than I thought I would," Perunovich said with a laugh. "It's gotten a lot easier for me."

While flying through the friendly skies may not be Perunovich's strongest suit, the Bulldogs freshman defenseman has been soaring on the ice with a team-leading 11 points going into Saturday's 7:07 p.m. nonconference game against Minnesota State-Mankato at Amsoil Arena.

Perunovich, with two goals and nine assists, has registered a point in nine of 14 games this season and in four of six NCHC games. Nationally, those 11 points put him tied for first among freshmen defensemen.

"Scotty's a heck of a player," said Perunovich's defensive partner, sophomore Nick Wolff. "Watching the guy, he can fly up the ice. I don't know how he does it."

Unlike his defensive partner, a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder, the 5-10, 170-pound Perunovich is not a prototypical defenseman. The former Hibbing-Chisholm standout is often referred to by coaches and teammates as the fourth forward when he's on the ice.

Talking last spring about his incoming recruits, Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said Perunovich was the type of player who could add a new dynamic to the program's offensive attack. Perunovich has done that so far, and while he's not always scoring goals, the rookie has been a strong influence on the attack by getting pucks up the rink and being a strong presence down low, Sandelin said.

"He's a special player," said Sandelin, who also hails from Hibbing. "He's got great vision on the rink. He's got the ability to create space when space isn't there. He's elusive. There are a lot of good instincts, good offensive instincts. I think the year in (juniors) helped him defensively. He learned how to use his stick better. He's not a big guy, so he's not going to get into a lot of the heavy, physical battles. He's got to be smarter and he certainly has that. I thought he's played outstanding for us."

Perunovich committed to the Bulldogs in the spring of 2015 after totaling 50 points in 28 games as a sophomore for the Bluejackets. The 16-year-old was just 5-8, 150 pounds at the time.

"I grew up at the cabin always watching UMD with my dad and brother," Perunovich said. "It's always been a dream to play here. When I got the opportunity I couldn't pass on it."

After recording 77 points in 28 games as a junior, Perunovich decided to forgo his senior year with Hibbing-Chisholm to play for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the United States Hockey League. There he posted just 21 points in 56 games but, as Sandelin said, that season helped make Perunovich a better player defensively.

Perunovich said he's a much more confident player defensively this season, though part of that is because Wolff is always there to back him up.

"I still make plenty of mistakes but he's still there to cover for me, which is nice to have back there," Perunovich said.

As offensive minded as Perunovich is, the question has been asked plenty, "Why not just move him to forward?" Former Hibbing-Chisholm coach Todd Versich acknowledged to the News Tribune when Perunovich committed to UMD that he toyed with moving his star defenseman up in the lineup. Cedar Rapids played Perunovich at forward for two games last season and, according to Perunovich, the team may have played him full-time at forward this season had he returned to juniors.

"The game of hockey is changing completely," Perunovich said. "I think it's more of a fast-paced game where everyone jumps up in the rush. That's what I do most. I jump up in the play and kind of am a fourth forward instead of a stay-at-home defenseman."

NO. 8 MINNESOTA STATE-MANKATO (9-4) AT NO. 16 MINNESOTA DULUTH (6-6-2)

What: Nonconference game

When: 7:07 p.m. Saturday

Where: Amsoil Arena

TV: My9

Radio: KDAL-AM 610/KDAL-FM 103.9

Internet: KDAL610.com (audio); nchc.tv (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
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