2021 NCAA Frozen Four: A spectator his first two trips, Bulldogs' Bender now an impact player in Pittsburgh

Matt Wellens, Duluth News Tribune, Minn.
·5 min read

Apr. 8—PITTSBURGH — Minnesota Duluth senior wing Koby Bender hit the ice Wednesday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh for his third pre-NCAA Frozen Four practice in his four seasons at UMD.

One of six Bulldogs to be taking part in his third Frozen Four, things felt a little different Wednesday for Bender compared to the previous two times, and not because of all the pandemic protocols in place.

In his previous two Frozen Four trips, Bender wouldn't skate again until Friday's pre-national championship practice having been a healthy scratch both in St. Paul and Buffalo. This time around the former Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Lumberjack is not only expected to be in the lineup at 8 p.m. Thursday against Massachusetts at PPG Paints Arena, but be a determining factor as to whether UMD will be playing for a historic third-straight national championship on Saturday in Pittsburgh.

"It's exciting, watching the first two and learning from those guys that are older than me and watching them have so much success," Bender said. "I'm just ready to get out there and do the best I can to help our team win."

Bender appeared in 25 games over his first two seasons at UMD, but only two came in the postseason — Games 1 and 2 of an NCHC quarterfinal sweep of Nebraska Omaha.

After appearing in 32 of the Bulldogs' 34 games last season — when COVID-19 canceled both the NCAA and NCHC tournament — Bender has played in all 27 this season, including all three of UMD's NCHC and NCAA tournament games.

But Bender is not just playing, he's putting up points as well.

He has a career-best seven goals and 13 assists this year and is riding a five-game point streak going into the Frozen Four. Of the four goals and three assists he has dating back to Feb. 27, three goals and an assist have come during the NCHC and NCAA tournaments.

Bender nearly had a second postseason assist and fifth postseason point during the first of five overtimes against North Dakota in the regional final two weeks ago, setting up senior linemate Koby Roth for what initially was ruled the game-winning goal at 9:30 p.m. on March 27. Instead a video review ruled that Bender was a hair offside, and everyone played on for another three hours and 12 minutes before freshman wing Luke Mylymok scored a goal that counted.

"They went to review and I didn't think anything of it until I realized that I bobbled it a little bit there close to the blue line," Bender said of the disallowed goal. "After they called it back, I was a little shocked."

Roth would also be carrying a five-game point streak into the Frozen Four had his goal not been taken off the scoreboard, tallying three goals and four assists in the previous four games to give himself 13 goals (ties a career high) and 23 points (a career high) this season.

Roth has credited Bender for many of his goals this season, many of which resembled the disallowed game-winner against North Dakota, minus video review taking it away. When Bender goes racing into the opposing zone, Roth — in what has become muscle memory now — goes backdoor and waits for the pass to hit his stick.

"I just have that trust in Bender with my stick," Roth said. "It feels like if I'm open for two seconds, that (puck) is going to be on my stick. He puts it in the perfect spot every time. I'm just really lucky to be playing with him."

Minus the whole disallowed part, Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said that play sums the chemistry Bender and Roth have created together, "to a T," this season. Bender, Roth and junior center Jackson Cates have been huge factors in a lot of games this season for the Bulldogs.

"It's been fun to watch those guys," Sandelin said. "Certainly Kobe Roth has been a big part of our group and Koby Bender has had an unbelievable year as a senior. And Jackson in the middle, he's a great compliment. They all compliment each other. I like what I've seen and what they've done for our team. Hopefully that continues for a couple more games."

A different Wednesday at the Frozen Four

Asked about the differences between coaching at the Frozen Four as an assistant compared to being the head coach, St. Cloud State's Brett Larson — an assistant at UMD during the 2011 and 2018 Frozen Fours in St. Paul — said he now knows where Sandelin was every Wednesday before the national semifinals.

"As an assistant, I'd probably be on a walk right now at a little cafe somewhere with my assistant partner and enjoying the sunshine," Larson said. "Now I'm in a press conference."

The media obligations — Tuesday with ESPN and now Wednesday with everyone else — have been different for Larson, but also for everyone else at this year's Frozen Four, including Sandelin.

In addition to large press conferences, the benches at Wednesday practices are typically filled with photographers and videographers while fans watch and cheer from the stands. After practice and a short cooldown, the locker room is then opened up to swarms of media.

None of that is happening this year at the Frozen Four because of the pandemic, with press conferences now held over Zoom and open locker room media sessions replaced by COVID-19 testing.

"Today is really a crazy day," Sandelin said of typical Wednesdays at the Frozen Four. "You come in Tuesday, guys are excited, but there's a lot of media stuff. It's a long day.

"This year is obviously a little bit different, or a lot different from that side of it."