Minnesota Duluth’s Scott Sandelin likes to say, “If you play the right way, you get rewarded.” For the coach, that means being a strong defensive player no matter your position.
No Bulldog over the past two seasons has epitomized that more than Justin Richards, who for the second consecutive season was named the NCHC Defensive Forward of the Year on Wednesday.
The junior centerman and UMD assistant captain led the NCHC with 307 faceoff wins in conference play, winning 58 percent of his draws to sit sixth in the league. In conference play, he blocked 14 shots, committed only six minor penalties and posted a plus/minus-rating of plus-9.
Richards spending just 12 minutes in the penalty box this season during conference games was key and not just because he was an important piece of a penalty kill unit that finished second in the league at 83 percent. Richards — along with sophomore linemate Cole Koepke — turned those defensive moments on the PK into critical points, scoring a league-leading two shorthanded goals against NCHC foes.
Richards finished the season with three shorties — the most since Mike Connolly’s four in 2011-12 and two shy of John Harrington’s record of five set in 1977-78 and '78-'79 — and also assisted Koepke on another. He had 25 points overall, including a career-best 14 goals.
Richards and Koepke tied for the most shorthanded points in the nation this season with four while Richards’ three shorthanded goals tied for the most nationally. UMD’s four shorthanded goals in league play led the NCHC while the six total were tied for third in the NCAA.
“Anytime you can kind of catch teams off guard on the penalty kill — sometimes they don't really expect us to go on offense — rather than just dump it all the way down (it opens the door),” Richards said earlier this season of UMD’s shorthanded chances. “Our D see the ice pretty well when we have it in our zone and anytime we see an opportunity to go, we'll take it. Any chance we can get offense, we're gonna go for it.”
Sophomore center/wing Noah Cates finished third in league play in scoring with 11 goals and 27 points but lost out to North Dakota junior forward Jordan Kawaguchi for NCHC Forward of the Year. Fighting Hawks freshman forward Shane Pinto was named Rookie of the Year on Wednesday.
This year’s NCHC awards, like every other season, were originally scheduled to be handed out during a show on March 19 in St. Paul as part of the Frozen Faceoff. That event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year’s award winners have been announced throughout the week. The announcements wrap up Thursday with the Senior Scholar-Athlete, Coach and Player of the year honors.
Counting Richards’ honor on Wednesday, UMD has won five of the league’s eight player awards this week, with junior forward Kobe Roth claiming the Sportsmanship Award, senior Hunter Shepard winning Goaltender of the Year for the second time and junior Scott Perunovich sharing the Three Stars Award with Kawaguchi while also winning his third-straight Offensive Defenseman of the Year honor.
Thursday’s awards and nominees
Player of the Year (Jack Ahcan, Sr., D, St. Cloud State; Jordan Kawaguchi, Jr., F, North Dakota; Scott Perunovich, Jr., D, Minnesota Duluth)
Herb Brooks Coach of the Year (Brad Berry, North Dakota; Andy Murray, Western Michigan; Scott Sandelin, Minnesota Duluth)
Senior Scholar-Athlete (Karch Bachman, F, Miami; Zach Jordan, F, Omaha; Colton Poolman, D, North Dakota)
NCHC Award Winners
Sportsmanship Award: Kobe Roth, Jr., F, Minnesota Duluth
Three Stars Award: Scott Perunovich, Jr., D, Minnesota Duluth/Jordan Kawaguchi, Jr., F, North Dakota
Media Excellence Award: Dave Starman, CBS Sports Network
Offensive Defenseman of the Year: Perunovich, Jr., Minnesota Duluth
Defensive Defenseman of the Year: Colton Poolman, Sr., North Dakota
Goaltender of the Year: Hunter Shepard, Sr., Minnesota Duluth
Forward of the Year: Jordan Kawaguchi, Jr., North Dakota
Defensive Forward of the Year: Justin Richards, Jr., Minnesota Duluth
Rookie of the Year: Shane Pinto, F, North Dakota