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FROZEN FOUR: Consistent Bulldogs ready for St. Paul

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article appeared in the Herald's Frozen Four preview special section Thursday and was written before the Thursday afternoon game semifinal game between Minnesota-Duluth and Notre Dame, which Minnesota-Duluth won.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article appeared in the Herald's Frozen Four preview special section Thursday and was written before the Thursday afternoon game semifinal game between Minnesota-Duluth and Notre Dame, which Minnesota-Duluth won.

DULUTH -- A win-loss record doesn't tell the whole story, but here's where Minnesota Duluth stands entering the 2011 NCAA Frozen Four men's tournament today in St. Paul with a 24-10-6 mark:

- Twenty-four wins are the most since 2003-04, when the Bulldogs were 28-13-4 and advanced to the Frozen Four.

- Ten losses are the second-fewest in program history, behind only 1984-85, when the Bulldogs were 36-9-3 and advanced to the Frozen Four.

Yet even more tell-tale is that Duluth will go through 2010-11 with never losing more than one game in a row, a first in the school's 50 Division I years and unique among the NCAA semifinalists.

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"A team can't be much more consistent than that," said Brett Larson, a former Duluth player in his third year as an assistant coach. "Our players never lost their focus, they never let things slide. I've said it a million times, we've been at our best when our backs have been against the wall."

The Bulldogs went 6-0-2 through October and 11-1-2 through November, spending three weeks at No. 1 in the U.S. College Hockey Online media poll.

They had two three-game winless streaks, but never lost consecutive games.

"We came from behind to win games early in the season, especially in overtime, and then we learned to get leads and build on them," said Duluth coach Scott Sandelin, in his 11th season. "Even when we went through a rough stretch (2-4-2 to end the regular season), maybe we weren't great, but we were never bad. Our worst loss (8-2 at home against St. Cloud State on Feb. 11) was an aberration."

By Nov. 20, just six weeks into the season, Duluth already had five overtime victories, another program record. The Bulldogs trailed in three of those, at home against Alaska Anchorage and at UND and Wisconsin, before rallying for winning goals from J.T. Brown, Justin Fontaine and Travis Oleksuk.

Duluth has played in a school-record 14 overtime games with a glittering 6-2-6 mark. Duluth was 12-5-2 at home, 10-4-4 on the road and 2-1 at neutral sites. The Bulldogs gained the school's fourth Frozen Four entry by winning the East Regional over Union College 2-0 and Yale University 5-3.

"The ultimate goal has always been to get to the Frozen Four and win there, and now that our guys can see it right ahead of them, within their reach, they've pushed even harder," Larson said. "The East Regional was some of our best hockey of the season."

First-year assistant Derek Plante was Duluth's captain in 1992-93 and led Division I in scoring with 92 points as the Bulldogs got to the West Regional title game. Larson was a sophomore defenseman that season.

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The 1992-93 Bulldogs had one two-game losing streak. Frozen Four teams in 1983-84 and 1984-85 each had one three-game losing streak.

Plante works with the forwards and Larson the defensemen, while volunteer assistant Bill Watson, Duluth's 1985 Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner, provides offensive input. Although Plante followed the Bulldogs closely the previous two years, after retiring from 13 seasons in professional hockey, he's been impressed by this season's effort.

"Their realistic view from the start of the season, in their heart of hearts, was that they had a chance to win a national title. It wasn't just a pipe dream," Plante said. "When they've been pushed a little (by opponents), they've responded with a fighting spirit.

"The things I've stressed at practice are for our forwards to always be attacking and always be thinking 'How can I score goals?' "

Despite sweeping St. Cloud State to open the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs, Duluth's stock wasn't particularly high after losing 3-2 in overtime to upstart Bemidji State in the Final Five quarterfinals March 17 at the Xcel Energy Center. The Bulldogs were then sent to a regional in Bridgeport, Conn., and faced two Eastern College Athletic Conference teams -- host Yale, the No. 1 overall seed in the 16-team tournament, and Union, having its best season in program history.

"We know we're not quite done yet," says Duluth scoring leader Jack Connolly. "We're excited, but it isn't the attitude that 'We're here and that's good enough.' We want to keep our season alive and that will take two more wins."

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