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Thumbs up, thumbs down, three stars: Bender saves his best for last, scoring twice in Bulldogs' regular season finale

The Cloquet native finished the weekend with three goals as UMD sweeps St. Cloud State at Amsoil Arena

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Koby Bender (11) of Minnesota Duluth celebrates a second period goal against St. Cloud during Saturday's game at Amsoil Arena in Duluth, Minnesota (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)

Minnesota Duluth capped the 2019-20 regular season with a 6-1 victory over St. Cloud State before a crowd of 6,579 on Saturday at Amsoil Arena.

On Senior Night, the junior class shined with Justin Richards scoring twice in the first period, Koby Bender scoring twice in the second and Dylan Samberg finishing with four assists.

Kobe Roth and Luke Loheit also scored for UMD, which finished as runners-up in the NCHC regular season standings for the third time in four years after North Dakota pounded Nebraska-Omaha 5-0 in Omaha to finally clinch the Penrose Cup outright.

A full game recap can be found here.

Below are the thumbs up and thumbs down from Saturday’s game by News Tribune college hockey writer Matt Wellens, plus his three stars of the night.

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Photos: UMD St. Cloud Men's Hockey Saturday Photos by Clint Austin

Thumbs up to Koby Bender’s weekend

I got a weird look Friday night when I asked for a pair of seniors to interview in the postgame, and not the person who scored the game-winning goal: Koby Bender.

The reason for the seniors instead of Bender was two-fold. The seniors fit better with the story I was writing that night (more on stories below) and I obviously knew that Friday was just the start for Bender.

Sure enough, the Cloquet native put two more goals in Saturday — and he could have had 2-3 more, at least — to finish with three on the weekend. He had just two goals in the first 30 games of 2019-20.

“It was certainly his best weekend, and not just because he scored,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “I thought he played hard. He utilized his speed at times. He was stronger on the puck and made plays. He can do that. I always say, ‘When you play the game the right way, you get rewarded.’ Last night was a big goal for us and tonight he chipped in two. We were trying to get him a third getting him out there late on the power play.”

Bender is one of the Bulldogs who offensively is benefiting from the injury to sophomore center Jackson Cates. Bender has been bumped up from the fourth line and is now getting more minutes on the third line alongside senior center Jade Miller and Roth. While those three did play together earlier in the season, this weekend they really seemed to gel like never before.

“We’ve been playing well,” Bender said of he, Miller and Roth. “I played with them earlier this year. We had some good games together, too. It’s nice playing with them. They’re both smart, hard-working players.”

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Thumbs down to UMD not winning the Penrose Cup

As a journalist, I don’t root for any specific team. I don’t root against any team, either.

Am I a fan of college hockey? Yeah, but you won’t even see me cheering for my alma mater — Northern Michigan — mostly because I spent a lot more time following them as a reporter than as a fan.

However, I do cheer for a good story and going into Saturday night, I thought we had a good one coming, starting with NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton leaving last night’s Gold Pan game between Denver and Colorado College early to catch a 6 a.m. flight this morning from Denver to the Twin Cities. From there, he went and got the Penrose Cup from Xcel Energy Center (the league has two, and one was there) and brought it to Duluth, just in case the Bulldogs clinched a share of the league title on Saturday night.

Unfortunately, Fenton never got to make a center ice presentation. And the Penrose Cup never saw the lights of Amsoil Arena on Saturday, either.

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He did get to do a live intermission interview with Bruce Ciskie, though, so the trip wasn’t entirely for nothing.

The Bulldogs did their part and then some on Saturday night, even taking a generous 5-1 lead after two periods. I do root for margins like that because they give me more time to put together a nice story in a situation like this.

Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota failed to do their part, though. The Fighting Hawks routed the Mavericks 5-0. Honestly, that result came as no surprise. That’s what I expected on Friday night, not the 4-1 margin in favor of Omaha.

That Friday victory by the Mavs gave me hope that UMD would complete the biggest Penrose Cup rally in league history, erasing an eight-point deficit in the league standings. It gave me hope this senior class would add the one trophy it hasn’t captured yet in the previous three seasons.

It gave me hope that after winning three postseason conference titles and three national championships in his first 800 games as coach of the Bulldogs, Sandelin would win a regular season title in his 801st game.

I wasn’t hoping for those moments as a Bulldog fan. Those are all just great storylines, but as Richards said tonight, the trophy in April is much more important.

“We want all the trophies, right? But we checked the score of the North Dakota game, it was 3-0 after the second so we knew it wasn’t really likely,” Richards said when asked about the importance of winning the Penrose Cup on Saturday. “It’s not really the biggest deal. We’re going after that trophy in mid-April.”

I can’t argue with him. The first and only other team to three-peat as national champions since Michigan in the 1950s would be a great story.

Matt’s Three Stars

3. UMD junior defenseman Dylan Samberg: Four assists for the Hermantown native, who set up Bender twice, as well as Richards and Roth. Samberg has 20 assists now this season.

2. UMD junior center Justin Richards: He scored twice in the first period, with his drive to the net 96 seconds into the game setting the tone Saturday.

1. UMD junior wing Koby Bender: Two second period goals and three total on the weekend.

Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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