Young and the Best
by Bryan Engelson/CHN Correspondent
GRAND FORKS, N.D. Jonathan Toews was the youngest player on the ice in Saturday night's West Regional. He was also the best.
The 17-year-old forward scored a goal and assisted on two others as North Dakota defeated Holy Cross 5-2 at Ralph Engelstad Arena and advanced to the Frozen Four. Toews, who graduated a year early from Shattuck-St. Mary's Prep School in Faribault, Minn., had five points in two games on his way to being named the Regional's Most Outstanding Player.
"He's mature beyond his years," said Toews' linemate Ryan Duncan, who played with Toews for one year at Shattuck. "I've had a chance to play with Jonathan for a couple years now. I learned a lot from him and he's a kid that is three years younger than me."
Duncan said it is Toews' competitiveness that sets him apart from other players on the ice. That competitiveness was on display from the get go on Saturday.
Toews put the Sioux ahead 1-0 just 1 minute, 18 seconds into the game. He took the puck near the goal line, skated behind the net and wrapped the puck around Holy Cross goalie Tony Quesada for his 21st goal of the season.
"It was great to get that first goal," Toews said. "It relaxed us more and got the crowd into it."
Toews' play at the West Regional carried over from the previous weekend at the WCHA Final Five. He scored four points in two games there as the Sioux claimed their first Broadmoor Trophy since 2000.
Toews found it hard to describe his recent play.
"I can't really explain it," he said. "I think things are going well and just clicking sometimes."
Opposing teams have been forced to take notice of Toews, who is likely to be a top-5 pick in this spring's NHL Entry Draft. Holy Cross head coach Paul Pearl paid Toews quite the compliment after the game.
"He is one of the best players I have seen in quite some time," Pearl said. "He works hard too, he's not just a skill kid."
Toews and the 12 other freshmen on the UND roster are a big reason the Sioux have the opportunity to face Boston College in Milwaukee on April 6. Three of UND's top five scorers are first-year players and four of its six defensemen on Saturday were freshmen.
As the Sioux freshmen have evolved, so has UND. It enters the Frozen Four on a five-game winning streak, and has won 11 out of its last 13 games.
UND goaltender Jordan Parise said he didn't think this Sioux team was capable of a run like that earlier in the season.
"If you would have asked me three months ago I would have said there was no possible way we'd be here right now," Parise said. "I would have thought that we would have lost in the first round of the playoffs."
But the Sioux are still alive, thanks to Toews, hot goaltending by Parise and a number of other players that have stepped up late in the season. Another one of those players is Duncan, who gave UND a 2-0 lead at 15:16 of the first period. The 5-foot-6 forward took a pass from Toews in front of the goal and buried it home.
Duncan's goal was the first of UND's against a tough Holy Cross penalty kill. The Crusaders ranked third nationally heading into the regional and held Minnesota, who had the best power play in the country, 0-for-7 just one night earlier.
"They have really good individual talented players," Holy Cross defenseman Jon Landry said. "And any time you put five players that have that much talent on the ice together, you know their going to have a pretty powerful power play."
The Crusaders cut into UND's lead early in the second when Matt Werry ripped a slap shot over the glove of Parise. The goal was Werry's first of the season at 3:07.
UND regained its two-goal lead with 2:37 left in the second on a power-play goal by captain Matt Smaby. Toews fired a pass to Drew Stafford, who was unable to control the puck, in the left circle, but Smaby was in front of the net to slam the puck home.
Holy Cross responded with a power-play goal of its own at 5:21 of the third period. Blair Bartlett tallied the score when he put a puck that was sliding in front of the net past Parise.
Less than two minutes later Sioux forward Travis Zajac scored a goal that all but put the game away. Zajac redirected Brian Lee's slap shot from the point past Quesada while UND was on the power play.
"It's always easier to play with a two goal leader," Sioux defenseman Matt Smaby said. "That was especially true tonight because right before we scored, we were fighting the puck. The goal gave us more confidence and relaxed us."
UND's Matt Watkins added the game's final goal at 9:03 of the third.
"We want to sit back and enjoy this for a night or two before we get back to work next week," Sioux head coach Dave Hakstol said.