PREVIEW: Bulldogs set to take on Minnesota State in opening game of NCAA West Regional

Bulldogs practice before Friday night's battle with Minnesota State. Photo from Austin Rush

Bulldogs practice before Friday night's battle with Minnesota State. Photo from Austin Rush

The Bulldogs are dancing again. For the fourth consecutive season, a program best, the University of Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team is back in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament in the West Regional with St. Cloud State, Minnesota State and Air Force.

Sneaking in by .0001 pairwise points, the Bulldogs secured the last at large bid in the 16-team field. As the 3-seed, UMD looks to get back to the NCAA Frozen Four for the second season in a row and it all starts tomorrow night against Minnesota State (2-seed).

The two teams met twice this year during an extended home-and-home series that featured the Bulldogs taking the opening game 3-1 at Amsoil November. The Mavericks returned the favor handing UMD a 1-0 loss on a bleak Tuesday night back in January.

UMD and Minnesota State have never met in the NCAA tournament similar to the likes of SCSU and Air Force. Since going to a regional format in 1987-88, the Bulldogs are a perfect 8-0 in opening round games. That record is in jeopardy as the Minnesota State comes in as the No. 6 team in the nation in the latest poll.

The Mavericks have the No. 1 scoring offense in the nation netting 3.87 goals per game this season. Sophomore forward Hunter Shepard and company have held the nations top offense to just one goal in both meetings this year. So far in his 2017-18 campaign, Shepard has posted a 21-14-1 record with a .924 save percentage and a 1.98 goals against average with program best eight single season shutouts.

Tomorrow night’s bout could be a battle of special teams as the Bulldogs boast the thirteenth best penalty kill in the nation at 83.1 percent while the Mavericks hold the second-best power play in the nation converting 27.4 percent of man advantages. The Bulldogs counter that with a power play that converts 24.2 percent of opportunities. That is the second best power play percentage since the 2003-04 Frozen Four club posted a 25.9 percent mark.

Of the 10 Bulldog players on roster with NCAA tournament experience, only senior captain Karson Kuhlman and senior forward Jared Thomas hold the honors of playing in all four NCAA postseasons over the last four seasons. By puck drop tomorrow, they will be the only two players in Bulldog history to do so.

“I think after last Saturday, the way that Frozen Faceoff tournament ended, was not the way we wanted to go into this weekend,” senior captain Karson Kuhlman said. “I think our team did a really good job of turning the page this week because the goal from day one was to make it back to this tournament and anything can happen.”

UMD head coach Scott Sandelin said his teams second half of the season was more consistent than the beginning. He credits his team with playing really well down the stretch, allowing them to advance to their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament.

UMD and Minnesota State engage in battle from the Denny Sanford PREMIER center at 6:30 p.m. Friday night. The winner moves on to the regional championship to try and secure their spot in St. Paul, Minnesota for this year’s NCAA Frozen Four.