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Duluth Bulldogs putting pieces together, eyeing Frozen Four repeat of 2011

February 28, 2018 GMT

Karson Kuhlman saw the situation and knew his role.

As senior captain of Minnesota Duluth hockey, the Esko, Minn., native and former Cloquet High School standout knew the Bulldogs suffered heavy graduation losses and early professional departures from a team made it to last Aprils NCAA championship game before losing to Denver. Gone were 10 players, including five of the teams top six scorers and a goalie that played 39 of 42 games.

Entering the program was a class of talented freshmen, and Kuhlman was tasked with integrating that group, so the Bulldogs could remain a national title contender.

So far, so good for Minnesota Duluth, which has overcome a couple of hiccups a 3-7 stretch in November and December, and a 1-4 spell in late January and early February to solidify their spot in the NCHC standings and bolster their NCAA tournament hopes. Entering this weekends final regular-season series against Nebraska Omaha in Duluth, the Bulldogs (18-13-3, 12-10 NCHC) are comfortably in third place in the rugged NCHC and sit No. 8 in the PairWise Ratings, making them a near lock for the NCAA tournament.

Kuhlman, who had a hat trick in Fridays 8-0 drubbing of Western Michigan, is part of the reason why.

This year more than others, Ive tapped into more of a leadership role, especially with all these young guys, said, Kuhlman, who has 10 goals and five assists. Trying to help them being confident and comfortable playing. Letting their skills take over.

Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin appreciates the seniors selflessness.

Hes been awesome, Sandelin said. Early in the year there were some frustrations, probably, with not having the results. Hes really grown, too, and has done an outstanding job. His play speaks for itself. Hes been great for us all year, and hes really played his best hockey the last month and a half.

If Minnesota Duluth is to make another run at the Frozen Four, which will be April 5 and 7 at Xcel Energy Center, the freshmen must contribute, and they have. Defenseman Scott Perunovich leads the team with 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists), forward Nick Swaney (5-15 20) and defenseman Mikey Anderson (4-15 19) are fifth and sixth, respectively. Add in defenseman Dylan Samberg, a second-round draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets and former Hermantown standout, and the Bulldogs have a nice, young core.

The second half certainly has been better for us, Sandelin said. The first half, not only having some young guys getting acclimated to college hockey, it was a tough month for injuries in November and we were missing guys for world juniors. So, its nice to have everybody back and relatively healthy to get some consistency throughout our lines.

Freshmen arent the only newcomers who are contributing. Junior forward Peter Krieger, a transfer from Alaska Fairbanks, sat out last season but has 10 goals and 16 assists as the top-line center. He, too, has fit in quickly.

We knew the guys we had coming back and the guys coming in who we all knew could contribute, said Krieger, an Oakdale native who won two state championships at St. Thomas Academy. It was more being excited and anxious to see how it was all going to shape together.

Then theres sophomore goalie Hunter Shepard, who had the Herculean task of replacing standout Hunter Miska, who signed with the Arizona Coyotes organization after one outstanding season in Duluth.

The second half [of the season], hes been our best player. Hes given us a chance to win every night, Sandelin said of Shepard, a former Grand Rapids standout who is 18-11-1. He solidified a position that going into the year was a question mark.

Will it all be enough to return to the Frozen Four in St. Paul, where UMD won the national title in 2011? That remains to be seen. But the Bulldogs are trending in the right direction.

The goal was: Lets be better at Christmas than we were at the beginning of the year, lets be better at the end of the year than we were at Christmas, Sandelin said. Were slowly heading in that direction. I hope were getting there. This is a fun time of year.

In our weekly Frozen Focus, college sports reporter Randy Johnson will profile a team each week tracking toward the 2018 Frozen Four in St. Paul. Follow Randy on Twitter: @rjstrib.