Team of the Week: North Dakota
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
North Dakota's season has gone in fits and starts.
A win over Wisconsin, then getting swept at home by Maine. Three points against St. Cloud State, then swept by Alaska-Anchorage.
At Christmas, the Sioux stood 7-10-1.
But it's safe to say this past weekend could be the biggest jump start yet — a two-game road sweep of mighty Minnesota.
For this, the Fighting Sioux are the CHN Team of the Week.
"I gotta be honest, it was awesome," said sophomore forward Ryan Duncan, whose four goals on the weekend were a big reason for the success. "Not just being an archrival, but going into the No. 1 team in the nation and getting a huge two wins. It definitely showed a lot about our team."
North Dakota will have to wait another week to find out if this is the start of another run to the Frozen Four, or just another flash in the pan weekend -– it is idle this week. But at least it is thinking good things in the mean time.
"We definitely like the feeling we have about our team now," Duncan said. "We've built a lot of confidence over the last month. I think we learned a lot about ourselves in the first few months when we were struggling."
Every area of the team could be pointed to as a "problem" early on. Inconsistent goaltending, shaky defensive zone coverage, offensive leaders not producing like last year — and, just simply that the Sioux lost a lot of good players from last year's team.
"There's not that much difference from early in the season," Duncan said. "In all areas of our game, we're a little more sharp and guys have stepped up and played bigger roles.
"We've got a young team and it's a tough adjustment. You don't get a feel for college hockey until x-mas. I know that myself from last year."
Duncan, whose father played for the Sioux from 1968-71, now has 21 goals on the season, leading the team in that category and with 36 points. The 5-foot-6 Calgary native, playing with T.J. Oshie and Jonathan Toews, has emerged as important a force as his linemates – who both happen to be NHL First Round Draft picks.
"They have to take a lot of credit for it," Duncan said. "They've been playing pretty well and just haven't gotten the points as last year.
"For some reason, I've been in the right place at the right time. Trust me I benefit a lot by playing with those guys."
Oshie and Toews struggled early on to match their point totals from last year, but both have been coming on. And Duncan insists that both players contribute whether they are scoring or not.
"We all have our different strengths," Duncan said. "Oshie is pretty good all around. He plays the physical side and has amazing hands. I'm awestruck sometimes.
"Jonathan is very solid in his own end, he has a great shot, great vision. With me, I try to get to open areas. I'm not as big as those guys. I try to use my quickness to get into space. We work well together.
"(Oshie's) been just as amazing this year. He battled a couple injuries at the beginning of the year, and he's getting a lot more attention. It's part of the game plan for teams to shut him and Jonathan down. But really he's not that far off."
Oshie scored twice in the third period Saturday to seal that win. The first of those two goals, Duncan calls his favorite play of the season — a textbook, picturesque play, starting with a pass from Taylor Chorney to Duncan, who quickly threaded it across the slot, where Oshie one-timed it in.
As much inspiration as Duncan gets from his linemates, though, he said senior defenseman Robbie Bina is another source. Bina missed all of last season after suffering a broken neck during the 2005 WCHA Final Five. This season, he's returned and scored eight goals so far, including a shorthanded score in each of last weekend's games. The second of those two has become an instant classic, because it was scored on a three-hopper from about 190 feet away, and was also a pivotal goal.
After North Dakota led 2-0 early, Minnesota scored three straight power-play goals, until Bina's blooper tied it right before the end of the first period. The Sioux scored the next four goals to win the rout.
"I was on the bench. I had a great view of it," Duncan said. "I saw it bounce and I was thinking it has a chance to go in if it had a crazy hop."
"He's really inspirational," Duncan added about Bina. "He's played fearless, not tentative at all."
Duncan said his size probably prevented him from being drafted in 2005, but he remains confident that one day he'll get an opportunity.
"I'm not bitter or anything," Duncan said. "I understand where they're coming from. Hopefully, the way game is changing now, I definitely believe I can play if I get a chance."
With players like Brian Gionta and Martin St. Louis flourishing in the NHL, it's easier to have that confidence.
"I don't really look to anyone in particular," Duncan said, "(but) it's definitely encouraging. It shows they can be successful in the game. But I'm not comparing myself to those guys."