It's been 13 years since a team repeated as NCAA hockey champions
DULUTH, Minn.—When the Minnesota Duluth men's hockey program raises its second NCAA championship banner to the Amsoil Arena rafters on Saturday night, 19 of the 26 players from the 2017-18 national championship squad will be back for another season as Bulldogs.
Of the 21 players projected to suit up for the 7 p.m. season opener against Minnesota, 17 played in the 2-1 victory over Notre Dame in the Frozen Four final at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
It's for those reasons and many others the Bulldogs are favored to win another title this season, picked No. 1 in both national polls, garnering 74 of a possible 84 first-place votes between the two of them.
But as recent history has shown, repeating as NCAA champions is much easier said than done.
"Last year is over," Bulldogs junior goaltender and Cohasset native Hunter Shepard said. "We have some new guys on this team. We're not the same team as we were last year. Even though we'd kinda like to replicate that identity of how we competed, this is a new year. You can't use any of the games or any of the goals we scored last year this year.
"After they raise the banner and stuff Saturday night, we're going to try and move forward and see if we can do the same thing with a new group this year."
It's been 13 years since a team in NCAA Division I men's hockey repeated as champions with Denver going back-to-back in 2004 and '05. The Gophers went back-to-back in the two seasons prior to the Pioneers, winning it all in '02 and '03.
Before that you have to go back to Boston University's repeat in 1971 and '72.
"Our captain Parker Mackay says the hardest thing to do in sports is repeat," said Hibbing native Scott Perunovich, a sophomore defenseman who led the Bulldogs in scoring last season. "We know nothing is going to come easy for us. We're willing to work for it."
Not only have the last 13 NCAA champions failed to repeat, all 13 failed to return to the Frozen Four the following year, starting with the Pioneers, who after winning a second national championship missed the 2006 NCAA tournament.
Six of the last 13 champions have missed the NCAA tournament after winning it all, four have lost in the regional semifinals and just three have reached the regional final.
The Bulldogs, on paper, appear primed to break free of those trends and not only get back to the Frozen Four, but join Denver (1960-61, 68-69) and Michigan (1955-56) — who also three-peated in 1951-53 — as repeat champions.
UMD returns Shepard, who set single-season school records for goals-against average (1.91), save percentage (.925) and shutouts (8) in 2017-18. Also back are UMD's top six defensrmen, most notably Perunovich, the 2017-18 NCAA rookie of the year and first-team All-American.
Five of UMD's seven top point-getters from last year are back, including leading goal-scorer Riley Tufte, a junior wing.
The only key piece missing from last year's team is captain Karson Kuhlman.
No worries because Kuhlman's No. 2, Mackay, is back wearing the 'C' this season.
"It's important to realize we still need to put the work in," Mackay said of being the defending champs. "We can't be focused on the outside stuff. Those are preseason polls and until the hockey actually starts you never know. We're just trying to put the work in so we're ready and prepared to start the year off the right way."
The target is real
A year ago at this time, everyone was talking about Denver possibly being the first team in 12 years to return to a Frozen Four and repeat as champions.
Like the Bulldogs, the Pioneers were No. 1 in the preseason with all their leading scorers and national goaltender of the year Tanner Jaillet back for another season. They returned 13 of the 20 players who suited up in the win over UMD in the championship game in Chicago, with captain Matt Butcher, the Hobey Baker-winning defenseman, being the one key piece missing.
Denver finished second in the 2017-18 NCHC regular season, won the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, but saw its season end via a 5-1 loss to Ohio State in the Midwest Regional final.
Senior forward Colin Staub, who will captain the Pioneers this season, said the 2017-18 team got caught up in being the nation's top team, didn't focus on day-to-day details and didn't respect the large target placed on their backs every night.
"Every single game had to be our best game because we were playing teams that were going to produce their best game against us," said Staub, whose Pioneers suffered early season losses to Lake Superior State, Dartmouth and Merrimack. "It was really important that we recognized that. As a Pioneer, I don't know if we necessarily did that. Otherwise we might have been more successful last year at the end of the season."
North Dakota coach Brad Berry said he and the Fighting Hawks faced a similar reality after winning a 2016 national championship.
Returning 12 of the 20 players who suited up in the 5-1 win over Quinnipiac in Tampa, Fla., including goaltender Cam Johnson and superstar forward Brock Boeser, the Hawks were ranked No. 1 to start 2016-17. They finished fourth in the NCHC with a sub-.500 conference record that year and lost in double overtime to Boston University in the West Regional semifinals.
"There is a spotlight on you, there is a target on you," Berry said. "You have to make sure everybody is ready to go. If you don't have everybody ready to go, there is a chance you might lose that game.
"They are still gunning for you. You hung that banner. You're the last team that won a championship. They are measuring themselves to you all the time. That's what we learned and that's what we had to tell our players and try to get in their heads. Hey, that's the level everyone wants to get to. Now that's the same with Duluth."
Bulldogs still hungry
Coach Scott Sandelin, entering his 19th season at UMD, is well aware of the target on his program's back this season. After all, he's done this before. Sorta.
After winning the program's first NCAA title in 2010-11, Sandelin returned 14 of the 20 players who suited up in the 3-2 overtime win over Michigan in St. Paul, including starting goaltender Kenny Reiter. They did lose three of their top six defensemen, most notably Justin Faulk, and wound up starting the year ranked 10th by USCHO.com, though they received 10 first-place votes.
The Bulldogs finished second in the WCHA in 2011-12 and were ousted by eventual national champion Boston College in the Northeast Regional final.
"The biggest thing is not referencing last year too much. It's a new group. They have to create their own identity," Sandelin said. "That's going to take place over the course of the season. Hopefully it's early, making sure guys are hungry and in the right mindset. You have a lot of first-year guys who think this is easy. ... It's not that way."
When Sandelin says "first-year guys" he's not talking about the seven freshmen he brought in for 2018-19, but the 10 that came in a year ago. That group, now sophomores, is so far 1-for-1 in their collegiate careers at winning an NCAA title.
UMD also returns nine players — three seniors and six juniors — who not only tasted sweetness of victory last year in St. Paul, but the bitterness of defeat two years ago against Denver.
Sandelin said there is plenty of hunger in that group, with Shepard believing the Bulldogs still have a lot to prove to the world.
"Last year you look back at it — we didn't think so — but we probably weren't supposed to (win it all) with the start we had and such a young team," Shepard said, referencing UMD being under .500 at Christmas last season. "It would have been easy for us to just say, 'Oh, it's not our year.' We have a bunch of guys on this team, it doesn't matter if we're playing for the national championship or checkers, they're going to be pissed if they lose. Losing hurts a lot more than winning feels good. It's the kind of guys you need. You don't always need the most talented or most experienced when you have guys like that on your team.
"We need to play gritty, like we have something to prove. There are always going to be people out there that still think we shouldn't have won last year. They think it was a fluke and we're not going to have a good year this year. Those are the people that are going to motivate us."