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Hockey: Shepard puts on another show at Xcel Energy Center

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Clint Austin / Minnesota Duluth goaltender Hunter Shepard makes a glove save during a Minnesota Wild development camp scrimmage at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Thursday. 2 / 3
Clint Austin / Minnesota Duluth goaltender Hunter Shepard deflects a shot on goal during a Minnesota Wild development camp scrimmage at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Thursday. 3 / 3

ST. PAUL — Three months after backstopping Minnesota Duluth to a national championship, Cohasset native Hunter Shepard is back at Xcel Energy Center this week for the Minnesota Wild's annual prospect development camp.

He's staying at the same hotel the Bulldogs were at during the Frozen Four in April. His stall inside the Wild locker room is just three down from where he sat wide-eyed after the 2-1 victory over Notre Dame in the NCAA title game.

So yeah, Shep's been having some fun this week.

"The walk over, goosebumps a little bit," Shepard said. "Good memories for sure."

Shepard put on another show Thursday at Xcel, though this time before a much smaller crowd, during the first of two Wild prospect scrimmages. One of four goaltenders invited to the camp, Shepard was the only one to post a shutout during his 30 minutes in net. He made a few big saves late to give Team Green a 2-0 lead over Team White, which came back to win in a shootout.

A second scrimmage is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sunday at Xcel.

Of the four goaltenders, Shepard is one of two free-agent invitees along with the Minnesota Gophers' Matt Robson. It's the second NHL prospect development camp this summer for Shepard, who also spent four days last month in Buffalo — home of the 2019 NCAA Frozen Four — at the Sabres camp.

Shepard said at both the Wild and Sabres camps, he's found himself working on a lot of the same things that he and Bulldogs goaltending coach Brant Nicklin work on back in Duluth. Still, it's great to get extra tutelage and to pick the brains of NHL goaltending coaches.

"You just ask them as many questions as you can and soak it in," Shepard said. "It's good to get the experience and learn from the goalie coaches, learn from the staff here. It's just learning. You come, pay attention and take in as much as possible."

This week in St. Paul, Shepard has been working with a former Bulldogs goaltender in International Falls native Bob Mason, who has been the Wild goaltending coach since 2002.

Mason said Shepard's knowledge of the position — "his goalie IQ" — has really stood out this week, and that was on display loud and clear Thursday inside the mostly empty Xcel Energy Center as Shepard busted out that trademark bark he used during the Bulldogs' championship run to communicate with his fellow NHL prospects.

"He's very vocal. We could really here him vocalizing and we were sitting in the suite level during the game," said Mason, who commended Shepard on his reads and verbiage. "It's one way he stays in the game.

"He has good goalie instincts. He reads the play pretty good and that's helped him."

Mason said he also was impressed with Shepard's strength and fitness. Those attributes stood out as well to Wild assistant general manager Tom Kurvers. Though he was hired only a little over two weeks ago, Kurvers is plenty familiar with Shepard having watched him last season as the senior advisor to Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman.

Oh, and like Mason, Kurvers is a former Bulldog, so he too had ulterior motives for keeping a close eye on Shepard late last year.

"Strong athlete. I didn't know the size and strength of the young man," Kurvers said. "I just watched him play when things went well again for the Bulldogs. It's kind of stunning to get a look at him and see how athletically built he is. That bodes well for him to have another great season in net for what should be a really good team in Duluth."

Shepard will be back in the Bulldogs net in 2018-19 after completing the most successful season ever for a UMD goalie. His goals-against average (1.91), save percentage (.925) and shutouts (8) were all single-season UMD records.

Mason said if Shepard has another year like that, there will be more than just the Sabres and Wild knocking on his door, though the former UMD goalie warned that Shepard can't start thinking that far ahead.

No worries. Shepard has been focused all summer on his junior year at UMD, so much so that he never sought out or fielded any pro offers this offseason, and he only recently hired a family advisor.

Still, the NHL is Shepard's ultimate goal.

"That's the end goal, that's where you want to play. That's my goal, no matter what anybody says. That's what I will work toward my whole career," Shepard said. "It's nice to see what guys do every day at this level and what it takes to get here and stay here. At the end of the day, if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out, but take everything in you can and give yourself the best chance to have that opportunity."

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.

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