Frozen Four Preview: Minnesota Duluth

Throughout the week, I’ll have posts on each of the teams playing in the 2011 NCAA Frozen Four. There is plenty of quality FF coverage across the internet, but I’ll try and give you something just a little different.

The University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs have had an incredible season and their being in the Frozen Four is no fluke. I’ve seen this team play a few times on TV and was always impressed with the way that they competed.

They’ll have a very tough opponent in Notre Dame come Thursday at 5 p.m. EDT on ESPN2. We covered the Fighting Irish in yesterday’s Frozen Four Preview.

With Thursday night’s contest, the Bulldogs get national exposure. For a team that has been getting better and better recruits, this could be a huge showcase for their program.

Scott Sandelin and his staff have put together a heck of a hockey team. So, after the jump, here’s a look at what stands out to me about Minnesota Duluth.

Size Doesn’t Matter

The Bulldogs have 11 players on its roster under six feet tall and seven players listed at six feet exactly. All of it’s best players are under six feet. Justin Fontaine, Jack Connolly and Mike Connolly, better known at the FCC Line all lack great size. Justin Faulk, who will get to more in depth in just a bit, is probably the club’s most gifted defenseman and he’s 5-11.

When a team lacks size, it needs two things. Speed and some grit. Duluth has both and it makes for a very exciting brand of hockey. If you’ve seen this club’s power play, you know what I mean.

For whatever reason, smaller players can thrive in the NCAA. On the other side of the ice you’ve got T.J. Tynan leading Notre Dame at 5-8, 165. Credit Sandelin and his staff overlooking a player’s measurements and looking at the way the players play the game. It has clearly paid off.

UMD play-by-play man and an excellent hockey writer/blogger, Bruce Ciskie, has more on this same topic on The Ciskie Blog.

Jack Connolly: From H.S. Standout to USHL Superstar to Bulldog Icon

There’s no doubt that both Jack Connolly and Mike Connolly (no relation) are big parts of this Bulldog team. As this is the United States of Hockey, I’ll focus on the American Connolly.

Jack Connolly shares a similar story to that of Anders Lee in that he was a Minnesota High School standout for Duluth Marshall. He was also a multi-sport athlete, earning the Duluth News Tribune’s All-Area Boy’s Soccer Player of the Year. Not too shabby.

Despite a senior season in which he posted 77 points (37g-40a) in 31 games for the Marshall Hilltoppers on the ice, he needed that extra year of seasoning in the USHL. He got it with the Sioux Falls Stampede and was named USHL Rookie of the Year and USA Hockey’s Junior Player of the Year after tying for the league lead with 72 points (26g-46a) in 2007-08.

He had a solid freshman campaign for the Bulldogs in 2008-09, but in the last two seasons has been perhaps UMD’s best player. He earned All-America and team MVP honors as a sophomore, leading UMD with 49 points. All he did this year was put up better numbers with 58 points.

One thing you’ve got to love about Connolly is the fact that he just keeps producing year in and year out. Not only that, but he has increased his production in each of his three years at UMD (29-49-58).

Whether it’s scoring a big goal or setting up one of his two stellar linemates in Mike Connolly or Justin Fontaine, Jack Connolly has quieted anyone who doubted him because of his size. Though he was never drafted, it’d be hard to believe him not earning an NHL contract either after this year or next, should he decide to stay for his senior campaign.

Justin Faulk – One And Done?

While Notre Dame boasts two of the hottest producing freshmen in the country, UMD has perhaps the best freshman defenseman in the country and one of the best pro prospects playing in the Frozen Four in Justin Faulk.

The NTDP product has done nothing but impress in his rookie campaign for the Bulldogs. Posting 30 points (8g-22a) to lead all freshman defensemen nationally (eighth among all blueliners), Faulk has continually proven that he is an elite offensive talent on the back end.

He was drafted early in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2010 and at the time, some said it was a reach. Anyone that had watched Faulk closely in Ann Arbor knew it was actually more like a steal.

Faulk’s 5-11, 200-pound frame is solid, to say the least. He doesn’t have that coveted size, but he’s got a ton of strength. He’s got a bomb of a shot and moves the puck extremely well. Faulk is also deadly on the power play (six of his eight goals came on the PP).

Last year, at the NTDP, he set the record for goals in a single season by a defenseman with 21 (breaking Jack Johnson’s record). He also was a key member of the U.S. National Junior team that took bronze earlier this year in Buffalo.

He’s seemed to have all, but mastered the college game. That, coupled with his international experience against the world’s elite players, this could be the first and last season for Faulk at UMD. The fact that fellow Carolina prospect Brian Dumoulin has elected to remain at Boston College for his senior season means that Faulk probably has a spot if he wants it.

The Hurricanes are very high on Faulk right now. Assistant GM Jason Karmanos told this to Michael Smith of the team’s website:

“Certainly with the year that he’s had right out of the gate, he’s put himself in a position where it’s not out of the question to think that he may be able to make the jump,” Karmanos said. “But right now, obviously, his focus is on possibly winning a national championship. We’re excited for him that he’s in the Frozen Four, and we wish him the best of luck.”

I think there is little doubt he will be offered a contract at the end of UMD’s season and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t sign. He’s ready for the pro game, even if that means spending a year in the AHL with Charlotte. So Hurricanes fans, keep a real close eye on No. 25 for the Bulldogs.

Goldie Locks

Some teams grow playoff beards. Some grow mullets. It’s all about superstition and team bonding.

For UMD’s post-season run, the entire team has bleached it’s hair, causing many a player to sport an unsightly, goldish-orange mane.

I can’t say I’m a fan of the idea, but when a team gets together and makes a decision as a group, I guess I can live with that.

Minnesota Duluth’s NHL Drafted Players

Player – NHL Team – Year, Round, Overall

Justin Faulk – CAR – 2010, 2, 37
Joe Basaraba – FLA – 2010, 3, 69
Dan DeLisle – CHI – 2009, 3, 89
Drew Olson – CBJ – 2008, 4, 118
Scott Kishel – MTL – 2007, 7, 192
Max Tardy – STL – 2009, 7, 202

Helpful Links

Minnesota Duluth Men’s Ice Hockey Official Web Site
Minnesota Duluth Roster and Bios
Minnesota Duluth Season Statistics

For more news and notes on Frozen Four participants, be sure to check out College Hockey, Inc.’s website.

Coming up this afternoon, a look at the University of Michigan Wolverines.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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