Analysis: Dreams and Nightmares
by Virg Foss/Staff Writer
GRAND FORKS, N.D. Rick Comley found out Saturday night that there is a fine line between sweet dreams and disturbing nightmares.
A dream season in 2006-07 ended last April with Comley's Michigan State Spartans skating away as Frozen Four champions at the NCAA Division I tournament in St. Louis.
The sequel to that Saturday night in Grand Forks turned into something else.
Six different North Dakota players scored goals and 11 of them recorded at least one point as the Fighting Sioux, ranked No. 1 in the national polls this season, pummeled No. 3 Michigan State 6-0 in the season opener for both teams.
It was a rather humbling start to the season for the Spartans, blanked in a season opener for the first time since 2002.
"It was kind of the worst nightmare of what you feared," Comley said. "Six months of people patting you on the back and then coming in here and playing a team of that caliber."
The caliber of hockey played by North Dakota in front of a sellout crowd of 11,738 at Ralph Engelstad Arena for the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game was outstanding — far less so for the Spartans.
Even though the Spartans actually finished with a slight edge in shots on goal (23-22), an uncharacteristically bad night by Spartans' junior goalie Jeff Lerg and a perfect night for UND senior goalie Jean-Philippe Lamoureux (23 saves for his fifth career shutout) highlighted the differences.
"We struggled in some areas, obviously," Comley said. "But we didn't give up a lot of shots. So you take it for what it is."
Lerg was brilliant in the Frozen Four run for the Spartans last season and carried a 2.22 goals-against average and .920 career save percentage into Saturday's marquee match up of two teams who figure to be contenders for the NCAA title this season.
"Our goalie struggled," Comley said. "He's a great goalie, but he struggled tonight. You give up too many easy ones, then the pit gets too deep."
Lerg was beaten four times on the first shot, once by a redirected pass that skipped off a skate of a Spartan forward and went through his legs, and once on a puck that bounced off the end wall glass out in front of the net and was swatted out of the air and into the net by Sioux sophomore center Chris VandeVelde.
Lerg didn't even face a shot until more than 11 minutes into the game. When he finally saw one coming at it him, a laser of a wrist shot by Sioux junior center T.J. Oshie rocketed past his left shoulder at 11:38 of the opening period for what turned out to be the game-winning goal.
Two minutes later, Oshie was given a questionable 5-minute major and game misconduct penalty for checking from behind, ending his night prematurely but exiting with the game-winning goal to his resume.
Returning Hobey Baker Award winner Ryan Duncan made it 2-0 for the Sioux five minutes later when his centering pass went into the net through Lerg's legs off the skate of Spartan rookie forward Dustin Gazely.
VandeVelde, who replaced Oshie on the top Sioux line with Duncan and rookie Matt Frattin when Oshie was ejected, batted the puck out of the air for the only goal of the second period and a 3-0 Sioux lead.
Goals by Frattin, Andrew Kozek and Chay Genoway completed a hat trick of third-period goals for the Sioux, a Frozen Four participant last year with the Spartans in St. Louis.
For Frattin, who had been recruited by Michigan State as well, the Sioux delivered a message with the victory.
"It's definitely big for us taking out Michigan State," Frattin said. "They're one of the favorites in the country, too. I think we sent a statement out to the country — were here to play."
It may be more true that the primary message the Sioux sent was that they have quality depth in the lineup behind Duncan and Oshie, who combined for 48 goals a year ago.
UND coach Dave Hakstol had to shuffle the personnel on three of his four lines after Oshie's ejection. All four lines figured in on the scoring. Duncan and Frattin led the way with a goal and one assist each while defensemen Taylor Chorney and Robbie Bina, veteran leaders on a strong blue line corps, had two assists each.
The strong play of Lamoureux was in sharp contrast to the one period he played six days earlier in a 9-3 exhibition game victory over the University of Manitoba. He faced two shots in the 20 minutes he played — and gave up two goals.
"I was kind of joking around with the guys, I was saving all my saves for the (regular) season," Lamoureux said. "I tried not to over-think things, to play real simple."
For North Dakota, the past three seasons under Hakstol have been marked by slow starts and strong finishes, putting them in the Frozen Four all three years.
That turtle-like start may be a thing of the past.
"It's definitely a nice step for us," Duncan said. "We're pleased with our performance tonight. We played great team hockey and Phil (Lamoureux) stood on his head again."
Actually, Lamoureux didn't have to make a flurry of great saves and seldom gave up a rebound to the Spartans. He looked under control in handling the first shots he faced in stark contrast to Lerg's wobbly night.
But before we rush to crown North Dakota as this year's Frozen Four favorite, remember this:
No team ever is quite as good as it looks in victory and no team ever is quite as bad as it can look in defeat.
"I think we match up pretty well as teams," Comley said. "But you can't tell for sure, because Oshie left early, and he's a great player. They have great quickness and work ethic, which we can't simulate in practice. But we'll be fine."
No doubt they will. With 20 players back from last year's championship team, it would be a major mistake to make any conclusions based on the opening game of their season.
Still, it was an impressive night for North Dakota, one the Sioux hoped to parlay into the school's eighth NCAA title six months from now.
"I like their team a lot," Comley said of North Dakota. "And I think they will be a force all year."