A little over six months ago in Fargo, North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth and Michigan were finally set to play their long-awaited rematch of the 2011 NCAA national championship game at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
The Bulldogs beat the Wolverines 3-2 in overtime on April 9, 2011 at Xcel for the first of their three NCAA titles, and the 2021 NCAA Fargo Regional semifinal was to be the setting for a match 10 years in the making.
The pandemic had other ideas, however, as the Wolverines were removed from the NCAA tournament due to COVID-19 protocols just hours before puck drop. Now Michigan comes to Duluth for the 2021 Ice Breaker Tournament — which was also delayed a year due to the pandemic — with a historically loaded lineup to play the Bulldogs at 7:37 p.m. on Friday in the second semifinal at Amsoil Arena.
The Wolverines have a record seven first-round NHL draft picks on this year’s roster, including four of the top five picks from the 2021 NHL Draft. The Bulldogs have seven draft picks total on their 2021-22 roster — all from the third through seventh rounds — but that doesn’t intimidate the Bulldogs.
UMD sophomore wing Blake Biondi, a 2020 fourth-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens out of Hermantown, said it’s “really cool” to play a team of Michigan’s caliber this weekend in Duluth.
“There's a lot of hype around them,” Biondi said. “I know the way we play, it's really tough to play against. It gives us a chance to win every single night. I think it’s going to be awesome. Everyone's super excited for it. There is a lot of hype around the game, so it should be special.”
Sophomore defenseman Wyatt Kaiser is the Bulldogs' highest draft pick on the roster this season after going in the third round, No. 81 overall, to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2020. Junior wing Quinn Olson, a 2019 third-round pick of the Boston Bruins, went No. 92 overall.
- The Rink Live: How have college hockey teams with the most NHL first=round draft picks fared?
- Bulldog Insider Podcast: Hermantown boys are no strangers to big games at Amsoil Arena
- Bulldog Insider Newsletter: How to follow, watch and listen to this weekend's Ice Breaker action
The Wolverines have 13 total draft picks on their roster, with five going in the first round in 2021.
Sophomore defenseman Owen Power was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft, going to the Buffalo Sabres. Sophomore forward Matt Berniers went No. 2 to the Seattle Kraken, freshman defenseman Luke Hughes was picked fourth by the New Jersey Devils and sophomore forward Kent Johnson was taken fifth by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Of course the Detroit Red Wings, only a 43-mile drive from Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor, were picking sixth in 2021.
Michigan’s other first-rounders include freshman defenseman Mackie Samoskevich (2021, No. 24, Florida Panthers), sophomore forward Brendan Brisson (2020, No. 29, Vegas Golden Knights) and junior forward Johnny Beecher (2019, No. 30, Boston Bruins).
Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said that while everyone talks about the draft picks, opponents need to be wary of the rest of the lineup that coach Mel Pearson has put together in his fifth season as head of the program.
“Michigan's always been a team that plays up-tempo, they play fast, they skate. I've always enjoyed playing them over the years and it's because of that,” Sandelin said. “Everyone talks about the high-end guys, but they've got a good blend on the lower end too. They have three lines that can do damage. They're a good team, a solid team.”
A Frozen Four-like field in Duluth
Like Biondi, Sandelin said he was excited to play the Wolverines this weekend, and to see Providence and Minnesota State play in the opening semifinal on Friday at 4 p.m.
Part of the excitement for Sandelin surrounding the showdown between the Friars and Mavericks may come from the fact that his son, Ryan, is a junior forward for Mike Hastings’ Mavs. It’s not often the Bulldogs coach gets to see his son play in person.
It’s also, “a great field,” Scott Sandelin said on Wednesday. Three of the four teams qualified for the NCAA tournament a year ago, with UMD and Minnesota State in the Frozen Four.
Providence, with nine NHL picks on this year’s roster, is the only participant not coming off a trip to the NCAA tournament. The Friars, who won a national championship in 2015 and last reached the Frozen Four in 2019 in Buffalo and lost to UMD, finished third in Hockey East last season. They missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013.
Michigan has qualified for three of the last five NCAA tournaments, reaching the Frozen Four along with UMD in 2018 in St. Paul.
Minnesota State has made six of the last eight NCAA tournaments and finally ended a streak of six straight regional semifinal losses that included defeats to UMD in 2018 (3-2 in overtime in Sioux Falls, South Dakota) and Providence in 2019 (6-3 in Providence).
The Bulldogs are riding a streak of six straight NCAA tournament appearances and four-straight Frozen Fours, having won back-to-back titles in 2018 and 2019.
“I think we’re just fortunate to get all the teams we did,” said Sandelin, whose program last hosted the Ice Breaker in 2017. “We weren’t able to have it last year. … It’s a great field and we’re excited to host it again.”
Players to watch
Minnesota State senior goaltender Dryden McKay
A Hobey Baker Memorial Award Hat Trick finalist and finalist for the Mike Richter Award last season, McKay is the only goaltender in NCAA history to record double-digit shutouts in a season, and he’s done it twice, with 10 each of the last two years. He’s 3-1 in four starts this year for the Mavs with a .924 save percentage and 1.53 goals against average.
Providence sophomore forward Brett Berard
A 2020 fifth-round pick of the New York Rangers, Berard is off to a hot start for the Friars with three goals and two assists in three games against Army, Merrimack and American International. He had five goals and five assists in 19 games last year and helped the U.S. National Junior Team capture gold at the World Junior Championship, where he posted a goal and four assists.
Michigan senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg
No, he’s not one of the seven firs- rounders, or even one of the 13 NHL draft picks on the Wolverines roster this season, but the name of the Maize and Blue captain came right off the tongue of Scott Sandelin following the name Owen Power. Blankenburg is the leader of the Wolverines blue line, having scored five goals and eight assists last year in 26 games. He didn’t score last week against Lake Superior State, but unloaded nine shots on goal, tied for second-most on the team.
Minnesota Duluth senior wing Noah Cates
Right after sophomore defenseman Cam York being the lone Wolverine to sign an NHL deal this offseason, the return of the younger Cates to UMD — after his older brother, Jackson, signed with the Philadelphia Flyers — might be one of the biggest surprises this offseason in college hockey. Noah Cates is a 2017 fifth-round pick of the Flyers, who admitted during NCHC Media Day in September that his brother’s signing made him think twice about his original decision to return to UMD. Cates was one of four Bulldogs — along with Biondi, sophomore wing Quinn Olson and fifth-year senior wing Kobe Roth — to tally a goal and an assist last weekend in the sweep of Bemidji State.