NCAA Preview: North Dakota
by Bryan Engelson/CHN Correspondent
GRAND FORKS, N.D. North Dakota found itself on the outside looking in of a top-three finish in the WCHA for the second season in a row at the end of the regular season this year. The Sioux tied for fourth this year and in fifth place a year ago.
Minnesota and Denver have found themselves slotted now lower than third heading into postseason play the past two years. Yet North Dakota can claim something that no other WCHA team, actually no other team in the nation, can during that time span — consecutive trips to the Frozen Four.
The Sioux fell just shy of a national championship last year, losing 4-1 to Denver in the championship game. This year's squad quest to win one more game than on college hockey's biggest stage begins Thursday at the Bradley Center in the day's first semifinal game at 2 p.m.
"It's something we work for every year," UND head coach Dave Hakstol said. "Certain years things come together and a lot of things go right to get to the Frozen Four. Other years they don't. The expectation of this program is extremely high. We expect good things year in and year out. You have to take advantage of every opportunity because you never know when or if get back."
Hakstol certainly has taken advantage of those opportunities. He's only been at the helm of the Sioux program for two years, and both of those years ended with late season UND surges to the Frozen Four.
With 13 freshmen on the UND roster this year, it took them a while to gel as a team. The Sioux were in danger heading into February before finishing the regular season on a tear that parlayed into WCHA Final Five and NCAA West Regional championships once they reached the playoffs.
"At the beginning of the year with everybody so young and so different, we didn't really know how to feed off each other," Sioux goaltender Jordan Parise said. "They (freshmen) just expected to play their game that they have always played their whole life, but sometimes that's not the best way for the team to be successful."
The Sioux freshmen definitely have found a way to be successful. Three of UND's top five scorers on the season — T.J. Oshie (45 points), Jonathan Toews (38) and Ryan Duncan (36) — are first-year players.
Their production has gotten even better in the postseason. Led by Toews, who was named the West Regional's Most Outstanding Player, UND freshmen accounted for 6 goals and 9 assists at the regional, which was held on UND's home ice in Grand Forks.
"If you look at Johnny, Oshie and Duncan, those guys have elevated their games so much in the postseason, and that's exactly what we needed," Parise said. "It's not just those three guys, but it's been everyone who has fallen into their role."
Youth has served UND up front and on the blue line, but it has been experience that has been the key in goal. Parise is UND's all-time leader in goals against average (2.09) and save percentage (.919). His 6-2 career record, to go along with a 1.51 GAA and .939, in the NCAA tournament makes Parise the active leader in Division I playoff wins.
"Jordan has had a very good, consistent career," Hakstol said. "All you have to do is look at his numbers. Now he has one more challenge (winning a national championship) left in front of him."
That challenge is one everyone on the UND roster would love to achieve this weekend. With a mix of players who were in last year's Frozen Four, many of whom also fell just one game shy of the Frozen Four the year before that, and first-year players who are no longer playing like freshmen, the Sioux feel pretty good about themselves right now.
"We have those two experiences to use," junior forward Drew Stafford said. "With that, and the pretty good we've been on, I like our chances."