Myers: Bulldogs riding college hockey's Greater Minnesota roller coast
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MINNEAPOLIS -- With just a few weeks to go in the last season for the modern WCHA, and with Minnesota Duluth coming to Mariucci Arena this weekend for the Gophers' final home in-state conference series for the foreseeable future - it's as good a time as any to assess the state of college hockey in the self-proclaimed State of Hockey.
A quick analysis looks like this: The Huskies and Mavericks are up. The Beavers and Bulldogs are down. The Gophers are, well .... the Gophers. That is to say the Twin Cities-based team is right in the thick of things, all but assured of an NCAA tournament invitation and very much still in the hunt for the league title, although it does not control its own destiny on that front.
Minnesota's other four top-level college hockey teams are on the typical roller coaster they ride while playing in a 12-team conference versus programs like the Gophers, Wisconsin and North Dakota, which are all blessed with vastly greater resources. Next season that will change with the new conference alignment.
St. Cloud State is leading the WCHA and after more than 20 years in the conference has the inside track to win the league title for the first time. In 2010 Bob Motzko's team won an NCAA tournament game for the first time in school history, then spent the next few years underachieving. The Huskies have bounced back in a big way.
Minnesota State in Mankato is the biggest surprise in the region, and in perhaps all of college hockey under new coach Mike Hastings. The Mavericks are expected to make an NCAA tournament appearance for only the second time since making the jump to Division I in the late 1990s.
After a surprise run to the Frozen Four in 2009 and a much-heralded entry into the WCHA, Bemidji State is a mess, currently 11 games under .500, with one win since before Christmas. That one victory by the Beavers came last weekend against Minnesota Duluth.
The Bulldogs traveled to Minneapolis on Thursday, and will go to work on Mariucci's ocean-sized ice surface in search of their first win in a long time. On Jan. 18, Minnesota Duluth won at Colorado College on a Friday night to improve to 10-10-4, and looked poised to salvage a respectable season after a shaky first half.
They're still looking for their 11th victory, and seem unlikely to find it in Dinkytown. Despite their recent success, winning the NCAA title two seasons ago and spending much of 2011-12 ranked No. 1 in the nation, the Bulldogs have beaten the Gophers only once in their last half-dozen meetings.
The on-ice doldrums in 2013 have marked a sharp drop-off for Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin and company.
On a sunny Friday in Florida last April, while the Gophers were packing up and heading home from Tampa after a 6-1 drubbing by Boston College in the Frozen Four semifinals, Sandelin and a few dozen Bulldogs fans were across town at MacDill Air Force Base, where Duluth native Jack Connolly was handed the Hobey Baker Award. That made UMD the first college in the nation to claim five recipients of hockey's version of the Heisman.
But with prolific scorers such as Connolly, Travis Oleksuk and J.T. Brown all playing for a paycheck now, the Bulldogs have in effect started over and encountered the predictable bumps along the way.
The expectations are the same whether you root for the Gophers or one of the state's other four teams, but the realistic picture is much different. Where Don Lucia feels the heat and has folks calling for his head after one season of going on the road for the conference playoffs, fans in Bemidji, St. Cloud, Duluth and Mankato are forced to be more patient, knowing that honest contention for conference titles and NCAA tournament trips is not going to be a yearly thing.
The Gophers no longer annually have their pick of the state's top 10 prospects like they may have 25 years ago when there were just two Division I teams in the state, but they are still the 1,000- pound gorilla in terms of recruiting in-state talent. Nearly early every Gophers game can be seen on state-wide television and the University of Minnesota can offer opportunities that the state's other four programs can't.
So where Gophers fans - known far and wide for their high expectations, and, to the less charitable, their arrogance - get antsy whenever their team loses three in a row, college hockey fans outside the seven-county metro area are forced to be more patient, knowing that if all goes according to plan, the good times will come around every few years or so.
Sandelin took over a UMD program that had bottomed out in the late 1990s, and struggled for three years to get his players and his system working in Duluth. By 2003, he had a 20-win team. A year later the Bulldogs made it to the Frozen Four and Sandelin was named the top coach in the nation.
Then came a quartet of sub-.500 seasons as the roller coaster hit a dip, and fans in Duluth applied some heat. That lull was followed by a WCHA playoff title and an NCAA tournament appearance in 2009, a 22-win season in 2010, a national title in 2011 and a 28-win campaign (with the Hobey as an added bonus) last season.
Now, for the Bulldogs, the roller coaster is dipping again, but nobody seems to be panicking. They'll give it their all versus a Gophers team that is deeper and stronger at most positions, and if they can get a win this weekend, it will provide a season highlight for many.
Either way, they will head back to Duluth late Saturday, where the state's most recent NCAA title banner hangs from the rafters of their home rink. It serves as a reminder that for college hockey fans in Greater Minnesota, neither the good times nor the rough times tend to last forever.