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Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down, Three Stars: Francis makes Bulldogs debut after battling knee injury, leukemia

UMD men's blue line struggles Saturday against Nanooks; and a correction about what an overtime "win" actually is worth.

Minnesota Duluth defenseman Will Francis (23) surveys the ice while playing against Alaska on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team is the No. 1 team in the country following a pair of nonconference wins last week over Alaska at Amsoil Arena in Duluth.

Five different Bulldogs found the back of the net in Friday’s 5-1 win over the Nanooks while an extra 28 seconds was required on Saturday for anyone to score a goal in the 1-0 overtime win for UMD.

The Bulldogs women took part in the D1 in DC tournament over the weekend, where Penn State scored two goals in the third period to beat UMD 3-2 on Friday . The Bulldogs rebounded Saturday for a come-from-behind 4-3 overtime win over St. Lawrence thanks to the efforts of Gabbie Hughes, Elizabeth Giguere and Anna Klein.

Here’s a look back at last weekend’s Bulldogs hockey action via the Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down and Three Stars by hockey reporter Matt Wellens.


Thumbs up to Bulldogs freshman defenseman Will Francis

After being a healthy scratch in the first 12 games of the UMD men’s season, injuries and illnesses opened the door for freshman defenseman Will Francis to finally make his official Bulldogs debut as the seventh defenseman against Alaska.

It was a special debut, because the 21-year-old Francis spent a tumultuous two years battling through knee surgery and then cancer to skate at Amsoil Arena on Friday and Saturday. Not counting Da Beauty League over the summer and the Bulldogs' exhibition against Wisconsin to start the season in Chippewa Falls, these were Francis’ first official hockey games since he last suited up for the Cedar Rapids Roughriders of the United States Hockey League on Nov. 2, 2019.

“It was unbelievable,” Francis said Friday of his debut. “Looking back two years ago, or just a year ago with what I’ve gone through the past 18 months, a lot of people didn’t know if I was ever going to play again. I always had it in my head that I’m going to get out there, that’s my goal, that’s where I want to be. It felt unbelievable. I had family here, some friends. It’s just awesome. It is awesome.”

A towering 6-foot-5, 207-pound defenseman who was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the sixth round of the 2019 NHL Draft, Francis suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice just 10 games into the 2019-20 season with the Roughriders. Then in March of 2020, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia — a cancer of the blood.

Francis was declared cancer-free on July 9, 2020, and about a year later, he was skating alongside former Bulldog Riley Tufte at Edina’s Braemar Arena in Da Beauty League .


While he thought he was capable of making the Bulldogs' opening night lineup, Francis said he didn’t really have any major expectations for himself when he arrived on the UMD campus this fall. The time he’s spent working out instead of playing has made him stronger and better prepared his body for his eventual first games against the Nanooks.

“I felt good,” Francis said after Friday’s game. “I’d say there are just some things that you’re always trying to get better. Closing in the defensive zone was something I thought I could have done better. That’s going to come with time and playing again. Overall it was a really good night.”

Thumbs down to UMD men’s blue line on Saturday

While the Bulldogs’ forward group on Saturday was shuffled more by injuries and illnesses than a deck of cards that had been tossed up in the air by a toddler, UMD’s defensemen were mostly intact minus sophomore Wyatt Kaiser (illness) and senior Jake Rosenbaum (substitute forward).

But the Bulldogs blueliners still struggled against an Alaska team that forechecks hard, Sandelin said Saturday.

“I thought they struggled handling the pressure,” he said. “I thought we made a lot of not-so-great passes. I've seen the group be a lot better.”


Sandelin said the defensemen needed to do a better job of getting back quickly on pucks, and the forwards needed to do a better job getting back to support them when needed.

It was a problem on Friday, too, Sandelin said.

“A lot like last night, I thought we struggled on breakouts because I thought we were a little bit lazy getting back as a group of five,” Sandelin said Saturday. “You limit your opportunities to break pucks out and then you got pressure and you’ve got to make a decision on what D-zone exits.

“Some of that's communication, some of that's puck support and just being ready. That's something we got to clean up for sure.”

Thumbs down to overtime 'wins'

Minnesota Duluth forward Noah Cates (21) celebrates after scoring the game winning goal against Alaska goaltender Daniel Allin (1) in overtime on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live must issue a correction to its UMD hockey coverage from over the weekend.

Those nonconference overtime wins the Bulldogs men’s and women’s teams picked on Saturday weren’t 100% wins.

They’re 55% wins. Literally. Let me explain.

In conference play — or at least in the NCHC and WCHA — wins and losses are graded pretty simple. An OT or shootout win is worth two points in the conference standings while the loser gets a single point. A regulation win is worth three points.

But when it comes to calculating a team’s record for the Pairwise rankings — college hockey’s system to select at-large teams for the NCAA tournament, and then seed them — things get messy. The Pairwise only considers an OT win as being worth 55% of a win. Meanwhile — stop reading now if you hate participation trophies — the OT loser gets 45% of a win. Results from shootouts are counted as straight ties, though shootouts are only allowed in conference games and tournaments.

So while writers like myself called Saturday’s games “wins” for both Bulldogs teams — for the sake of simplicity — and while those results go down as “wins” for the Bulldogs in the record books and the standings — again, because it’s simpler — the reality is that they’re closer to ties than wins.

It’s crazy and confusing, even for those who follow the sport closely, let alone the casual spectator. It needs to get fixed, and could this spring when it’s time to revise the rules.

But don’t count on it, because a group of college coaches still believe in ties, even though the players they coach are all too young to ever remember ties at hockey’s highest levels. The NHL did away with ties in 2005 and the IIHF followed in 2006.

“This tricked up gimmick, 3-on-3 hockey is a disgrace,” American International coach Eric Lang said after his team fell to 0-4-1 in 3-on-3 OT games on Nov. 19 . “It's summer hockey, pick-up league type stuff.

“It has too big of an impact on the outcomes. 3-4-5 looks a lot better than 3-8-1…It works in the NHL over 82 games. It doesn't work in a 26-game sample size.”

Lang’s problem is he is too concerned about how his record is perceived. Like a bad toupee, he’s hoping ties can cover up the fact that his team only has three wins, but we all know the truth.

And now you have the truth about what a win is, as well. The UMD men won 55% of Saturday’s OT game at Amsoil Arena against Alaska, which won 45% of the game. The Bulldogs women won 55% of Saturday’s OT game in Washington D.C. while St. Lawrence took 45% of the contest.

The News Tribune and The Rink Live regret the insanity.

Matt’s Three Stars

3. UMD senior wing Anna Klein — The fifth-year Bulldog posted three goals and two assists this weekend at the D1 in DC tournament, scoring twice on Friday against Penn State and picking up three points against St. Lawrence. Her goal Saturday was the 50th of her career, making her the 15th Bulldog to score 50 or more career goals.

2. UMD senior forward Noah Cates — The captain had a goal and an assist Friday in the 5-1 win on the wing, but was then asked to play center with UMD shorthanded on Saturday. Cates returned to the wing late to score the game-winning power-play goal in overtime with UMD on the 4-on-3 advantage.

1. UMD junior goaltender Ryan Fanti — The Bulldogs starter and NCHC Goaltender of the Week stopped 29 of the 30 shots he faced in the two games against the Nanooks, picking up his fourth shutout in seven games on Saturday in the 1-0 win.

Up next

The Bulldogs men’s squad plays another nonconference series, this time at 5:37 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Northern Michigan. Sandelin said Saturday he is hopeful to have both sophomore defenseman Wyatt Kaiser and senior center Casey Gilling back from illnesses that kept them out of both games against the Nanooks. Sandelin said freshman center Dominic James should be back for the series against the Wildcats after leaving Friday’s game late and missing Saturday’s game. Junior Luke Loheit is week-to-week after not finishing Friday’s game and missing Saturday’s series finale.

The UMD women are back home for the first time since Oct. 17 to host Ohio State in WCHA play. Puck drop is scheduled for 6:01 p.m. Friday and 3:01 p.m. Saturday at Amsoil Arena.

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