DULUTH -- For the second consecutive season, the University of Minnesota Duluth hits the road for a holiday tournament minus multiple defensemen due to the World Junior Championship.
There shouldn’t be a repeat of last year, however, when the Bulldogs victoriously finished Dartmouth’s Ledyard Bank Classic with just four blueliners.
Fourth-ranked UMD is well-stocked with defensemen this season and will be able to dress six or seven Friday, Dec. 28, when it opens the Desert Hockey Classic against Minnesota State-Mankato at 5:30 p.m. at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz.
That’s all music to the ears of junior Nick Wolff, who was one of the four UMD defensemen remaining a year ago in frigid Hanover, N.H., after three played in the World Juniors and senior Nick McCormack was suspended.
Wolff wound up playing perhaps 40 minutes — and that’s not an exaggeration — when UMD tied Dartmouth 2-2 and won a shootout.
“That was different last year. It’s nice to have everybody back,” Wolff said. “We’re missing two key guys to our D-core, but we have other guys who can step in and play that role. It’s a big opportunity for them, and hopefully they take advantage of it.”
This time around in lukewarm Arizona, Wolff has plenty of experienced help. Only two defensemen — the sophomore duo of Mikey Anderson and Dylan Samberg — are gone with the U.S. National Junior Team. Wolff’s partner, sophomore Scott Perunovich, will be with UMD this year because the Hibbing native is too old for this year’s World Juniors.
Sophomores Matt Anderson and Louie Roehl will be available for this year’s holiday tournament, though they now bring a combined 105 career games as opposed to the 29 they had played prior to the 2017 holiday tournament.
Where UMD will be inexperienced is with that last defensive pairing. Junior Jarod Hilderman — who has played six games this season and 32 the last three years — likely will be paired with freshman Hunter Lellig — who has suited up for nine games this season. Both have been rotating as UMD’s seventh defenseman this season, meaning their minutes have been few.
Wolff said he’s seen the rookie, Lellig, grow exponentially.
“Every game he’s played he’s making better plays and better decisions,” Wolff said. “He reminds me of myself freshman year. He just plays the puck really simple. He keeps the pucks going north and that’s all you need to do at his spot.”
Lellig and Hilderman have been the beneficiaries of a new NCAA rule that allows teams to suit up 19 skaters instead of 18. That rule would have been meaningless to UMD a year ago in Hanover since they started the weekend with just 18 skaters and finished with 17, but this year it means the Bulldogs have a couple of experienced defenders ready to step into the lineup.
UMD associate head coach Jason Herter — who is filling in this weekend while head coach Scott Sandelin serves as an assistant on the U.S. National Junior Team — will have a couple different options on who that 19th skater is each night.
He could continue to suit up seven defenseman, but that would mean playing freshman Jake Rosenbaum, who has played just one game this season.
Herter also could suit up all 13 forwards. He has plenty of experience and is missing just one, freshman Noah Cates, to the World Juniors.
“It’s a fine line between experience and sitting there being a cheerleader,” Herter said of the 19th skater in the lineup. “It’s hard in certain games. Once things get rolling, even if things go sour, it’s hard to get them in there just for a token shift here and there.
“I can’t remember what weekend it was, but we lost a couple defensemen to penalties, and the next thing you know, (Lellig) is out there on pretty important penalty kills and he did a heck of a job. That kind of experience, when you get in there and doing something about it and doing something with that time, is huge.”