On All Cylinders
by Derrik Sovak/CHN Correspondent
GRAND FORKS, N.D. The North Dakota Fighting Sioux may be the country's best hockey team heading into the Frozen Four. But, if you ask members of the team and its coaching staff, that wasn't always the case. At the beginning of the season, the Sioux were facing a lot of ups and downs, and up until a couple of weeks ago, were on the brink of not even making it to the national tournament.
In fact, it was a lot like last season.
"Three months ago, if you would have asked me if we'd be going to the Frozen Four I would have said no way," said UND goaltender Jordan Parise. "I can't really put my finger on it, but things have really started clicking."
The Sioux knocked off Holy Cross — which sent top-ranked Minnesota home early — 5-2 in the NCAA West Regional final and earned their place in college hockey's big dance.
While North Dakota boasts a lineup consisting of 13 freshmen and only two seniors, they play with such tenacity that opposing coaches are afraid of how far this team can go.
"They're really good," Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl said after Saturday's game. "They have an outstanding power play, and they were outmanning on the puck all night. I thought at times we skated with them, but after they start going they get dangerous."
The danger seemingly comes from everywhere, as the Sioux have started making their offense click no matter who's on the ice. UND's leading scorer, Drew Stafford, had been out with a lower body injury when the Sioux swept through the WCHA Final Five Tournament. And although he was back on the ice this weekend, the scoring came from a 17-year-old freshman — Jonathan Toews — a certain high first rounder in June's NHL Draft.
"He's outstanding," Pearl said of Toews, sounding a bit envious. "He's one of the best hockey players I've seen in a long time. I'm sure he's a pleasure to coach."
Toews hammered in two goals and added three assists in the West Regional, scoring five points and earning himself the honor of Most Valuable Player.
"I'm just fortunate to be playing on the line I'm playing on," Toews said. "We've got Drew (Stafford) back and the line is playing really well together."
In all, four North Dakota players were named to the West Regional All-tournament team. Freshman Ryan Duncan and Smaby were honored along with Parise and Toews. Parise recorded his sixth NCAA tournament win on Saturday giving him the most NCAA tournament wins of any active goalie. Parise's career playoff record sits at 15-3.
So as North Dakota advances to its 16th NCAA Frozen Four, one question remains: Do they have the talent to take them all the way?
"At the beginning of the season, we didn't have nearly as much skill as we did last year," Parise said. "But this team, in addition to playing their roles, they're doing a good job of scoring goals."
Said coach Dave Hakstol, "The chemistry for this team kicked in when we were swept at home by St. Cloud State. ... This is a team of development, and we can always get better at certain things on the ice."
Those things, Hakstol says, are the difference-makers in games.
"This is a continual process. We have good momentum right now, but we can build on that," he said. "Goaltending and specialty teams can make the difference in a game, and both of those things are clicking for us right now."
For the Sioux to be successful at the Frozen Four, they'll need to ride the glove and pads of Parise, who is currently playing like the best goalie in the country, and certainly has built a reputation as a money goalie.
"I work extremely hard to keep up with these guys," Parise said. "I have to elevate my game in order to keep up with them. This is a special group of guys that have the ability to motivate each other real well."