North Dakota's Winding Road
by Scott Stone/CHN Reporter
It’s been a long, strange trip this year for North Dakota.
The Fighting Sioux started off the season slowly, were three games under .500 in late November and found themselves in ninth place in the WCHA standings.
Then, as fans in North Dakota have become accustomed to in recent years, the team found a way to get hot down the stretch and ran off a torrid 19-4-4 record since that early point including a 13-2-3 record since the start of the new year en route a MacNaughton Cup as the conference regular season champion in the WCHA.
Then came last weekend.
Seeded number one for the WCHA Final Five last weekend in St. Paul, the Fighting Sioux were the odds-on favorite to take home the Broadmoor Trophy as conference tournament champions. After two stunning losses, 3-0 to eventual tournament champions Minnesota-Duluth in the semifinals and a 4-1 decision to Wisconsin in the third place game, North Dakota is now looking for answers and will have to find them quickly.
Hard work and getting back to the basics is what the focused on this week in preparation for New Hampshire in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“It’s been a lot more of a battling week for us,” said North Dakota senior Ryan Martens of the team’s practices this week. “We’re trying to get back to that warrior mentality that we had during our stretch of the year.”
After a the surprisingly rough showing at the WCHA Final Five, the road for the Fighting Sioux doesn’t get any easier.
The team now has to go on the road to Manchester to play the Wildcats in their own back yard in the Northeast Regional this weekend, in hopes of moving on to the regional final and then to the team’s fifth consecutive Frozen Four.
This Wildcat team has had an up and down year as well, but is a dangerous team skating in a familiar place.
“They’re a team that has real good skill and a lot of speed throughout their lineup upfront,” said North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol of the Wildcats. “It’s going to be something where we have to deal with their transition game and their speed coming up the ice. I think also for us, a real key to the game is to make sure we push them back and make them play in their own zone as much we can.”
Playing in an opponent’s back yard in the national tournament is something that the Fighting Sioux have become accustomed to in recent years, having to play a regional in Boston with Boston University and Boston College four years ago, and another regional with Wisconsin at the Kohl Center in Madison last year.
The main fact is that it doesn’t matter where you’re playing at this time of the year, it’s one and done regardless and this team knows this well.
“I don’t think anyone has given it a second thought,” said Hakstol of the challenge of playing out east. “You compute that and tally it up and know it’s a huge challenge, but from there you move on and get ready to do the job. The job is what it is. Every regional is going to be very challenging. It’s a great building and we are going to go in there and play our tails off.”
The Fighting Sioux will have to deal with New Hampshire’s top line studded with USA World Juniors member James van Riemsdyk who has notched 39 points this year (17-22) and sophomore standout Mike Sislo who leads the team in goals with 18.
North Dakota is a bit familiar with the Wildcats, having played them last year in a series in Grand Forks that the two teams split. Obviously, this is a different team than last year, but the systems haven’t changed and UNH packs a scoring punch that the Fighting Sioux will have to concern themselves with when the two teams battle this Saturday afternoon.
“They’re a fast team,” noted Martens. “A lot of people say that they have only the one line with van Riemsdyk, but if you watch any tape on them they are a solid, four line team that works really hard with good goaltending. It’s going to be a good challenge for us going out there.”
Leading the charge for the Fighting Sioux is former Hobey Baker award winner and senior captain Ryan Duncan. Duncan has put up very consistent numbers this year for North Dakota leading the team in goals with 19 and points with 38.
Capitan “Iron Man”
Saturday’s game will mark Duncan’s 175th consecutive collegiate game which will tie him with his former teammate Chris Porter for the Division I record and will look to move past it if North Dakota can get past the Wildcats.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate to not have any bad luck with injuries,” said Duncan of the streak. “I have always had the opportunity; the coaching staff has always had enough faith in me to put me in the lineup. It’s something that’s pretty special to me to be able to take part in every game.”
The streak is something that Duncan, the 2007 Hobey Baker Award winner, realizes that is something he can’t take for granted and he never liked not playing.
“I remember when I got kicked out of the game in Minnesota like seven seconds into the game or something and watching the game in the press box is an awful feeling. You have no control of what’s going on, on the ice. It’s probably more stressful than being involved in the game itself.”
United as One
North Dakota has ran into the injury bug a little bit this season, losing assistant captain Joe Finley for a large portion of the season early on and sophomore defenseman Derrick LaPoint to a devastating, season-ending leg injury down the stretch. And it may be without senior forward and assistant captain Matt Watkins this weekend. Watkins went down with a knee injury last weekend in the Final Five and is uncertain for this weekend.
One thing is for certain though this weekend on the injury front. Regardless of injuries, the entire team will be traveling to New Hampshire this weekend for North Dakota and coach Hakstol believes this is an important statement.
“Yes, everyone makes the trip. Quite honestly, I left that to the captains of this year’s team and they’re adamant that this team goes as one," Hakstol said. "That’s obviously been a strength of ours through the years, how strong the guys feel about one through twenty-five on our roster. We’ve come this far and we’re going all the way to Manchester as a complete team.”