Playing in the midst of a deadly pandemic, Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin has often reminded his players to take nothing for granted in 2020-21 and be grateful for every game played.
That was the case last week for the Bulldogs after their NCHC series at Miami was postponed to the end of the month due to a positive COVID-19 test result within the program. Contact tracing put the entire team in quarantine for over a week, but almost everyone was back on the ice Wednesday in preparation for a pair of games this weekend against Western Michigan.
The start of the series was delayed by a day, with puck drop now scheduled for 6:07 p.m. Saturday and 4:07 p.m. Sunday at Amsoil Arena, where a maximum of 150 family and friends of the teams will be in attendance.
The Bulldogs were swept by St. Cloud State at an empty Amsoil Arena just before going into quarantine after splitting with the Huskies in St. Cloud the week before. Sandelin said his team should return this weekend with a much greater appreciation for how fun it is to play, compared to sitting at home in quarantine.
“I thought our emotional level before the second weekend against St. Cloud wasn't as high as the previous week,” Sandelin said. “I've talked to other coaches and coaches that have gone through the same thing with their teams. Sometimes you get away from stuff that you like to do and you have a great appreciation of getting back. I liked what I saw (Wednesday) and I hope we can carry that over and have a good weekend against Western.”
Sandelin compared the energy levels in practice Wednesday to what he saw when the team returned from that short holiday break that was sandwiched in between the end of the NCHC Pod in Omaha, Nebraska, on Dec. 19 and the restart of conference play on Jan. 2. The team was required to quarantine then as well after visiting friends and family.
“We had a lot of energy coming off the Christmas break too,” Sandelin said. “I thought that carried over into our first weekend with St. Cloud, certainly the first game. Hopefully that carries over this weekend.”
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The Bulldogs are one of three NCHC teams forced to push pause in January because of a positive COVID-19 test result, and the previous two — Nebraska-Omaha and Denver — both returned from their layoffs with wins. The Mavericks and Pioneers went a combined 3-1 in their first series back.
Omaha, which had its first two series against North Dakota postponed due to multiple positive test results after the break, swept Colorado College in Colorado Springs in their first games since the Pod on Jan. 18-19.
Denver, which like UMD was dealing with a single positive test result, split with the Fighting Hawks in Denver on Jan. 17-18 after having a home-and-home series with the rival Tigers postponed. DU dusted the Fighting Hawks 4-1 in their first game back before falling to the league leaders 5-1 the next night.
“Knowing that our past couple games haven’t been great, we're hungry,” Bulldogs captain Noah Cates said. “We've struggled the past couple of games and we were really hungry to play that Miami series. That getting called off was hard for us, but we just have to continue that and keep that hunger. We want points this weekend and a couple of wins.”
The Broncos come to Duluth on a four-game unbeaten streak (3-0-1) after sweeping St. Cloud State last week in Kalamazoo, Michigan. WMU has played a league-leading 16 games this season and has yet to endure a pause, postponement or cancellation due to COVID-19.
That doesn’t mean the Broncos have avoided adversity.
Western lost sophomore starting goaltender Brandon Bussi on the first day of the Pod en route to finishing 2-6-2 in Omaha. Then WMU was swept at home by Miami its first weekend back, suffering 3-1 and 5-1 losses.
“The Pod wasn’t kind to them, they had some injuries, they lost their starting goalie in Game 1, and had to go play some guys that maybe weren’t ready. They got better as that Pod went on and played well at the end,” Sandelin said. “Right now, I think it's a team that is at a way different confidence level than they were in December, and you know what confidence can do.”
WATCH: Josh Passolt talks the SCSU series and the play of freshman goalie Alex Aslanidis. Head Coach Andy Murray also joins us from his car. And for some reason @chnews editor Adam Wodon is the thumbnail, but we thank him for joining us this week. https://t.co/sAzYG8ha64— WMU Hockey (@WMUHockey) January 19, 2021
Freshman goaltender Alex Aslanidis was one of those players who was not ready early on, Broncos coach Andy Murray said this week. But after getting lit up in two relief appearances in Omaha, Aslanidis has shined for the Broncos during their four-game unbeaten streak with a .928 save percentage and 1.71 goals against average.
Senior forward Josh Passolt, who had one of the Broncos’ nine goals against the Huskies in the 6-2 and 3-1 wins last weekend, said Aslanidis has been a big source of the team’s confidence, making key saves in key moments over the last four games.
“I can think of a handful of times where the other team has had breakaways or two-on-ones late in games, early in games, and he’s made some key stops,” Passolt said, “which is just huge in terms of us being able to transition the puck and keep the flow of the game going, minimize their scoring.”