It wasn’t mentioned once during a 25 minute, 34-second Zoom press conference held in the early morning hours of Sunday, March 28 in Fargo, North Dakota, following the longest game in NCAA men’s or women’s tournament history. It didn’t come up at all two days later during Scott Sandelin’s 12-minute pre-Frozen Four coaches’ video conference with reporters.
Finally, 12 minutes and 30 seconds into a press conference with Minnesota Duluth coaches and players on April 1, the nine-letter hyphenated word was finally brought up by the News Tribune.
Coming off back-to-back national championships in 2018 in St. Paul and 2019 in Buffalo, “three-peat” was all the Bulldogs heard throughout the ensuing offseason. It intensified once the puck dropped on 2019-20 in October and didn’t subside until a week or two after the season was ended by the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12, 2020.
With no NCAA tournament or title game played last season and no champion ever declared for 2019-20, UMD enters the NCAA Frozen Four at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh as the reigning two-time national champions, hoping to become only the second school ever to win three consecutive NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey championships, joining the 1951-1953 Michigan Wolverines.
“We have a chance,” Sandelin said last week when the ‘three-peat’ was finally brought up to the coach. “We got through the last game and we put ourselves in a position to have a chance and that’s all you can ask for. It’s a great opportunity and a lot of hard work ahead. As long as you have a chance, you can do it.”
The Bulldogs — only the eighth NCAA Division I men’s team to embark on a three-peat attempt, though first to have it stretched over two seasons because of a pandemic — play Massachusetts at 8 p.m. Thursday in the second Frozen Four semifinal. St. Cloud State and Minnesota State-Mankato meet in the first semi at 4 p.m.
Of the previous seven teams to go after a three-peat, only Michigan has come as close as UMD has, having done so in 1952-53. The Wolverines, who won six of the first nine NCAA men’s ice hockey championships, almost three-peated again between 1955 and 1957, but lost to Colorado College in the ‘57 NCAA championship game.
Denver has tried to three-peat three times now, going back-to-back in 1960-61, 1968-69 and 2004-05. The Pioneers missed the NCAA tournament all three times.
Boston University, champions in 1971 and 1972, also failed to make the NCAA tournament during its quest to three-peat in 1972-73.
Minnesota was previously the closest school to ever three-peat after going back-to-back in 2002 and 2003. The Gophers won 27 games in 2003-04, won the WCHA Final Five to earn a No. 1 seed, but to fell a game short of the Frozen Four after a 3-1 loss to the Bulldogs in the Midwest Regional final.
“We've had three shots at it my career, my class, and we've got there every single year,” said UMD senior wing Nick Swaney, a two-time national champion who is looking for his third in a row. “It's pretty special. This year with everything we've sacrificed and the ups and downs that we've had to go through and everything, I think it makes it that much better.”
A much different team
Last season, UMD returned 20 of its 27 players from the 2018-19 championship squad in Buffalo. Of those 20, 13 players were also part of the 2017-18 team that won the title in St. Paul.
The Bulldogs finished the 2019-20 season at 22-10-2 — their best regular season record since going 22-8-6 in 2011-12 — having won nine of their last 10 games, including five in a row. They were 10-2 dating back to late January and nearly caught North Dakota in the NCHC standings. UMD finished second in the league, just three points back of the Fighting Hawks, who didn’t clinch the title outright until the final day of the regular season.
UMD was ranked No. 4 in the USCHO.com poll and No. 5 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll when the season was shut down, but more importantly, the Bulldogs were No. 4 in the Pairwise rankings heading into the NCHC tournament.
Only Cornell had a longer winning streak than UMD when everything came crashing down, having won nine straight going into the ECAC tournament.
“Not having the chance last year, we knew we had a special team and we had the ability to be able to do it,” said Swaney, whose team was in position to be a No. 1 seed in the 2020 NCAA tournament. “We proved it again this year. We have the chance to do it again and it for sure is in the back of our minds.”
After the graduation of goaltender Hunter Shepard, Nick Wolff, Jade Miller and Jarod Hilderman, plus the early departures of Justin Richards, Dylan Samberg and Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner Scott Perunovich to the pros, only 13 members of the 2018-19 Bulldogs remain, including six — Swaney, Kobe Roth, Koby Bender, Matt Anderson, Louie Roehl and Ben Patt — who were with the program in 2017-18.
UMD junior wing Cole Koepke, a freshman when UMD won in Buffalo, said the group chat between last year’s squad has picked up in the last week or so, with a lot of support coming from their former teammates who missed out on playing in the NCAA tournament one last time because of COVID-19.
Their support has meant a lot, and it makes players like Koepke want to play for them even more this week, he said.
“The three-peat is really cool and we want to win for those guys on last year's team that weren't able to have their chance at it,” Koepke said. “It’s an unbelievable culture here and winning another one for this program would be special for a lot of people, even the ones that aren’t playing.”
Making history during a historic season
If the Bulldogs do indeed pull off the three-peat this week in Pittsburgh, it will indeed be an unorthodox one with the three straight titles coming over a four-year span.
But it wouldn’t be the craziest thing to happen by far in college hockey in the last 13 months.
Because of the pandemic and the late start to the season, UMD played only 24 regular season games this year and all of them were against its fellow NCHC opponents. The first nine were played in December in a Pod in Omaha, Nebraska.
The Bulldogs finished third in the NCHC, going on a six-game winning streak at one point to briefly take over first in the league before losing four of their final five regular season games.
UMD lost to the Huskies in the semifinals of the NCHC tournament — played entirely this year in Grand Forks — and had their first game of the 2021 NCAA regional in Fargo canceled because the opponent, Michigan, had to withdraw due to positive COVID-19 test results.
The icing on the crazy cake was a 3-2 five-overtime win over North Dakota in Fargo for the regional championship that included two extra-attacker goals by the Hawks to force overtime, a disallowed game-winning goal by UMD in the first OT and a goaltender change by UMD in the fourth OT.
Oh, and the game-winning goal was scored by a freshman fourth-line winger who didn’t take a shift in five consecutive periods and previously had just a single college goal on his resume.
“It's just kind of crazy. It's supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it seems that we just get to keep on doing it,” said Bulldogs junior wing Tanner Laderoute, who is seeking his second NCAA title at UMD. “There's 60-plus teams in the NCAA for Division I hockey and there are a lot that don't even make the tournament. Here we built a culture where we would be upset if we didn't make the tournament, and maybe even upset if we didn't make the Frozen Four. It just comes down to that's what is expected. We have really high expectations here and I'm super glad to be a part of it and hopefully keep it going.”
The 2017-2021 Bulldogs are now the 11th team to ever reach four straight Frozen Fours and first since North Dakota did so between 2005-08.
Already one of just five teams to have made three consecutive NCAA title games along with Boston College (2006-08), Minnesota (1974-76) and Michigan, twice (1951-53 and 55-7), a win Thursday over UMass would make the the Bulldogs the first school to ever appear in four straight national championship games.
And while some historians might be sticklers for everything happening in consecutive seasons — 2020 was the first time the NCAA men’s hockey tournament was not played since its inception in 1948 — the Bulldogs would still make history Saturday by winning another title.
They’d join Michigan (five titles in six years between 1951 and 1956) and Denver (1958-1961) as the only schools to win three titles in four years.
“People can spin it however way they want,” said Sandelin, who with another national championship would become one of four coaches with four or more NCAA men’s hockey titles. “The bottom line is we’re going back to the Frozen Four with a chance to win again and our guys know that would be something that would be pretty special.”