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UMD's Tufte letting his size, skills, dictate his impact

Bulldogs junior forward Riley Tufte, who turned 21 on Wednesday, was Minnesota's Mr. Hockey winner in 2016 for Blaine High School. (Clint Austin / The Rink Live)1 / 2
UMD junior forward Riley Tufte has skated in the NCAA Frozen Four all three years he has played college hockey, winning a national championship last season. (Clint Austin / The Rink Live)2 / 2

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- For many college students, turning 21 while attending the NCAA Frozen Four would mean a wild night of partying. For Minnesota Duluth junior forward Riley Tufte, there’s a plan for a crazy celebration, but it will have to wait 72 hours or so.

Tufte, the 6-6, 230-pound former Mr. Hockey winner from Blaine, Minn., turned 21 on Wednesday but had nothing out of the ordinary planned for his evening at the Bulldogs team hotel in the Buffalo suburbs. He has his eyes clearly set on the Thursday win needed for a third straight trip to the NCAA title game, and the Saturday win needed for a second consecutive national title.

After being picked in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft by the Dallas Stars, and attending the team’s development camp three times, Tufte certainly has had options to move on from the college life, where he’s working toward a communications degree. But the more immediate goal awaits on the ice of KeyBank Arena.

“It’s pretty crazy. I think we all expected to be here. That was the goal, and we’ve still got some work to do, which is awesome,” Tufte said on Wednesday, April 10, from inside the opulent Buffalo Sabres’ locker room, which the Bulldogs get to occupy as the tournament’s top seed. “Obviously we have high expectations in this program and we’re all looking forward to being here.”

While Tufte’s size has always been eye-popping, his numbers have been more pedestrian this season. His nine goals and nine assists in the Bulldogs’ first 40 games place him -- appropriately -- ninth on the team scoring charts. But his contributions to other areas of UMD’s defense-first game have been vital.

“He’s come into his own later in the season. He’s starting to use that body to his advantage,” said Bulldogs forward Parker MacKay, who has spent some time on a line with Tufte this season. “He’s been using his speed, taking pucks to the net, playing defensively for us as of late. Good to see. We’re going to need him here moving forward.”

In the 2017 NCAA title game in Chicago, when Tufte was a freshman, the Bulldogs got down 3-1 to Dever before making a spirited charge in the final 20 minutes. Tufte’s third period goal made it 3-2 and was one of 17 shots UMD sent to the Denver net in the period, ultimately falling just short of forcing overtime. This season, the Bulldogs have seen Tufte make a similar late charge as they seek to become college hockey’s first back-to-back champions since Denver won titles in 2004 and 2005.

“He’s really played well for the last month, month and a half,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said on Wednesday. “I remember having a discussion with him about a month ago. I said, ‘I don’t care what you’ve done up until now, because we need you coming down the stretch.’ He stepped up his game. When players do that, that’s the exciting part for a coach. They get it. Hopefully he can continue to do that here (Thursday) and hopefully if we’re playing on Saturday.”

As for celebrating Tufte’s 21st birthday on Wednesday, Sandelin said he would hold off on bending the team rules to allow his biggest player to have his first legal beer.

“If we win on Saturday, I will,” Sandelin said, with a smile.