North Dakota FF Preview
No April Fools
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
Players and fans in Grand Forks should be fairly used to this routine. After all, it's April again.
For the third consecutive year, and for the sixth time in the last 11 seasons, the North Dakota Fighting Sioux are playing in the Frozen Four. The three straight appearances have also come in head coach Dave Hakstol's first three years at the helm.
This year, North Dakota heads into St. Louis for a grudge match against Boston College after winning the West Regional with wins over powerhouses Michigan and Minnesota. A week earlier, the Fighting Sioux fell to the Gophers in overtime in the WCHA title game.
And though they finished in third place in the WCHA regular-season standings and have won 24 games so far this season (compared to 29 last year), it can reasonably be argued that this year represents Hakstol's finest coaching job yet. After all, for Sioux fans, this was supposed to be the year that Drew Stafford and Travis Zajac led their team to a national championship. But last year's top two leading scorers for the Sioux were among five underclassmen, including then-starting goaltender Jordan Parise, who bolted for the NHL ranks over the summer.
So, while Stafford and Zajac are helping the Buffalo Sabres and the New Jersey Devils win their respective divisions, North Dakota has found other standout players to lead the way. At the top of the list, of course, is sophomore Ryan Duncan, who has followed up a solid freshman year (36 points) with 57 points this season and the honor of being named the WCHA Player of the Year. Last week, he was also named one of the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.
Duncan is one of many members of the class of 2009 who have led this young Sioux team. The sophomore class comprises exactly half of the North Dakota roster and includes Duncan's linemates, T.J. Oshie and Jonathan Toews. Both have lived up to preseason expectations that grew from their impressive freshman campaigns a year ago.
What issues did Duncan, Oshie, and company have to overcome to avoid any sort of sophomore slump?
"Sometimes, the challenge coming back your sophomore year after having reasonable success as a freshman is maybe wanting to try and do too much as a player," said Hakstol, who played in his only NCAA tournament when he too was a sophomore. "That was one of the thing that some of our sophomores went through early [this year]. Another one of the challenges was stepping to the forefront, so to speak. Instead of playing on a second line, or on a second or third 'D' pairing, they are now the guys that are a little bit more in the spotlight.
"I think they've handled it well and have done a good job developing into expanded roles and, more importantly, into good team leaders. They're good players, they're competitive, and they're good people."
Still, even though the Sioux's sophomore class has led the way to another April appearance, their prospects did not look as strong when heading into the holiday break in December. But after losing seven of nine games at that time, North Dakota has gone 17-3-4 since, while losing only one game in regulation.
Fortunately for the Sioux, even during times of struggle, the blueprint for success was still there.
Said Hakstol, "I don't really feel like we had a huge turnaround as far as effort of performance. Obviously, with wins and losses, there's a big difference from the first half [of the season] to the second half. At the end of the day, this has been a team that has worked extremely hard, day in and day out. It's a team that's had good leadership in the locker room and has really just stuck together. Ultimately, that's what led us to our success."
Perhaps the most telling sign of how strong the leadership is for the Sioux was their turnaround in last week's West regional — dubbed by many as the "regional of death" — just one week after losing a heartbreaking WCHA title game to Minnesota in overtime.
North Dakota got an almost immediate chance at revenge, playing the Gophers in the West regional final and advancing thanks to a Chris Porter goal in overtime. And this was one day after the Sioux pulled out an 8-5 win against Michigan, in a game in which the Wolverines led 2-0 after only 58 seconds.
"It's never part of our game plan to be down by two, less than a minute into a hockey game," said Hakstol. "That was a bit of a strange game, especially considering it was tournament time. I don't think that's typical of what we'll probably see next week. We have simple systems, and we'll try and stick to those."
Sounds simple enough. But on the other end of the ice this Thursday will be a Boston College team that is playing arguably the best hockey in the country and is coming of wins over New Hampshire in the Hockey East championship game and Notre Dame in the national quarterfinals last weekend.
And Jerry York's Eagles squad defeated North Dakota in last year's national semifinal in Milwaukee.
Still, don't expect Hakstol and the Sioux to get caught up in another revenge storyline.
"We know we're playing a great team, a team that's 12-0 coming into the tournament," said Hakstol. "We have great respect for them as a team and a program. We're looking forward to the game because it's exciting to be involved in the national semifinal.
"But what we'll be focusing on is the fact that we're playing for the opportunity to win a national championship."
If successful, it would be the program's eighth national title, the last of which came in 2000, when the Sioux defeated — who else? — Boston College in the championship game. For a program that has become accustomed to Frozen Four appearances this decade, this year's squad — to Hakstol, at least — seems particularly special.
"It's hard to make the comparisons from year to year," said Hakstol. "I firmly believe that each team is different, but in particular to this team, this might be the tightest-knit group of guys that we've had. I'm not so sure that, overall, our talent is as high as our team last year. But this is a group of guys who show up and work hard and work together."
And on Thursday, beginning with their Frozen Four semifinal with BC, if they work hard enough, the Sioux might just make this an April to remember forever.