Sioux Can Draw on Experience
by Virg Foss/Staff Writer
GRAND FORKS, N.D. Been there, done that.
That's the simple message North Dakota's three hockey coaches can deliver with reassurance to their team as they prepare to tangle with Michigan on Saturday in the NCAA West Regional in Denver.
Fighting Sioux head coach Dave Hakstol, associate head coach Cary Eades and first-year assistant Dane Jackson can bring with them a wealth of knowledge of what it's like to play in an NCAA tournament when the Fighting Sioux and the Wolverines lock up in a regional first-round game for the second year in a row at 6:30 p.m. CDT on Saturday.
Hakstol and Jackson were teammates on the 1989-90 Sioux team that lost to Boston University in a best-of-three NCAA quarterfinal series in Boston that season.
Eades played on UND's NCAA championship teams in 1980 and 1982 and was a member of the 1979 team that lost in the NCAA championship game to Minnesota.
In 1989-90, the Sioux with Hakstol and Jackson as team members closed with a flurry, fashioning an 18-3-1 record after Christmas to advance to the NCAA tournament after struggling to an 8-8-3 record before Christmas.
This year's Sioux rolled to a 15-3-4 record since Christmas after wobbling to an 9-10-1 record prior to Christmas break. That hot streak since Christmas boosted the Sioux off the bubble for the NCAA selections into a solid No. 3 seed and earned them the reputation as the hottest team in the country entering this weekend's regional tournaments.
"The thing that sticks out in my mind about that team (1989-90) was how tight of a group we were," Hakstol said. "I look back at that series (with Boston University), and maybe from a biased opinion, I feel we were the better team in that series."
Hakstol sees great similarities between the Sioux of 1989-90 and his team of today.
"We were a team that year that went through a tough first half," Hakstol said. "We kind of went home at Christmas time doing a little soul searching."
That's the same message the Sioux tell today. They used the Christmas break to regroup and set up the torrid run at what they hope will be their third straight trip to the Frozen Four, which would give Hakstol the very are hat trick of Frozen Four appearances in his third year as coach.
"We had a ton of talent on that team (10 players scored 10 or more goals, led by Russ Romaniuk with 36 and Dixon Ward with 35), but what sticks out on that team was how tight of a group of guys it was," Hakstol said of the 1989-90 Sioux. "Everything we did, we did together. That's one of the biggest similarities I see with the team this year.I think this is a special group of guys. That doesn't guarantee you success. We got through some tough times in the first half of this year. When you do that, it exposes the character of what you have in the locker room.''
Hakstol said he thinks that overall defensively (goaltending included), this year's Sioux team has an edge over the 1989-90 team he played on. "We're six guys deep on the blue line, and I'm not so sure we were back in 1989-90."
Goaltending is far better this year as well. Junior Philippe Lamoureux carries a 2.22 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage into the regional. In 1989-90, none of the three goalies used by UND that season had an average below 3.47 or a save percentage higher than .882.
UND suffered a rare post-Christmas loss last Saturday, falling 3-2 in overtime to Minnesota in the WCHA Final Five championship game. Rather that hurt the Sioux, that setback may help them, fuel the fire.
"I'll never say that it's a good thing to lose,'' Hakstol said. "It still sticks in your belly. But it is what it is; we lost in overtime, so we have to take some things out of that and try to get better.''
Eades is the only one of the three Sioux coaches sporting an NCAA championship ring.
He, too, seems similarities between the championship teams he played on, and this year's edition of the Fighting Sioux.
"Camaraderie among our group is very high,'' Eades said. "That's been molded out of some adversity. If you look at out 1982 team, we had to go through some adversity at the start of the year, splitting so many games.'''
That team split six series' in a row early in the season before closing with a rush as well, winning 17 of its final 21 games.
So it's shaping up as a case of deja vu for the Sioux, a late-season run propelling the Sioux into status as a legitimate NCAA title contender despite the early-season struggles and a third-place finish in the WCHA.
Many regard the 1981-82 Sioux team as the most talented team in school history, with a dozen players off that team going on to play in the National Hockey League.
How's this team match up? "It's definitely up there,'' Eades said. "It's a different era, though, as far as players moving on at an earlier stage in their careers. So it's tough to compare that. I don't know if we'll ever have teams as old as that (1981-82 Sioux). Having said that, Michigan has a very experienced team, They're the one highly competitive program in the country that was able to hold all its players. So you have to tip your hat to them.''
UND's top players this year for the most part are sophomores, including the No. 1 line of Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie and WCHA scoring champion and Player of the Year, Ryan Duncan. Several rival coaches have called it the best line in college hockey with Toews and Oshie, two first-round NHL draft picks, paired with the undrafted Duncan. The 5-foot-6 Duncan leads the Sioux with 30 goals and 53 points, followed by Oshie with 44 points and Toews with 43, despite missing nine games. Combined, they have 140 of UND's 380 scoring points, nearly 37 percent of it.
Eades sees another similarity between his NCAA title teams in 1980 and 1982 and this year's group. "All three teams finished very well,'' he said. "It isn't always true, but I think it's more of a norm that teams that have been able to build their seasons step by step and are playing their best hockey, have the best chance at the end.''
It held true for the Sioux in 1980 and 1982 with Eades as a playing member. Now he hopes it rings a bell in 2007 as well.
Jackson, the new coach on the staff, stepped into a run at the end of the season with this year's team just as he helped fashion as a player in 1990. "That year, we had a very average first half of the season, but we formed into a good team the second half,'' Jackson said. "It's much like this team. But I think this team might have stronger goaltending and good defense, and guys who can score. One advantage this team might have over that (1989-90) is being well rounded and solid right out from goaltending to the forwards.''
"That team (1990) probably had more even scoring, but certainly not the dynamic line we have with Oshie, Toews and Duncan. But part of our success of late has been having other lines kick in,'' Jackson said. "I don't think you're ever going to win with one line scoring all the goals.''
Even if that one line is called the best in college hockey? "They are special group, that's for sure,'' Jackson said. "I think what makes them so special is how hard they work. They don't just get opportunities off a turnover or when a puck bounces to them, They dog the puck.''
This year's Sioux had to battle hard to secure home ice for the first round of league playoffs, not wrapping that up until the final weekend of the regular season.
It's that adversity that bonded Sioux teams in 1980, 1982 and 1990, and again perhaps this year.
"The battles of the WCHA season when we had so much adversity kind of pulled this group together,'' Jackson said.
United enough to win NCAA title No. 8 for UND? If the Sioux can get through what is regarded the toughest of the four regionals this weekend, maybe so.