Team of the Week: North Dakota
by Dan Myers/CHN Staff
Less than two months ago, North Dakota was considered to be one of the favorites in the WCHA by both coaches and media alike. In the annual coaches poll, the Sioux garnered four first-place votes and were penciled into the No. 2 spot. In the media poll, UND was third.
All of that for good reason. Under Dave Hakstol, the Sioux have been perennial powers. Just last season, they won both the MacNaughton Cup and Broadmoor Trophies and advanced to the Frozen Four in St. Paul.
But after the first month-plus of the 2011-12 season, UND looked very un-Sioux like.
Heading into last weekend, North Dakota was in an 11th place tie with Minnesota State. They had just been shutout 1-0 by Bemidji State — a team which had never beaten them in the Division I era. Two weeks before that, it was swept by rival Minnesota. Last month, it was swept by rival Wisconsin.
What a difference a weekend makes.
Led by the first line of Danny Kristo, Brock Nelson and Corban Knight, the Fighting Sioux swept No. 4-ranked Colorado College en route to a potentially season-saving pair of wins at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
"It was about our battle level and our performance level throughout the weekend. Quite frankly, and it starts with me, we were embarrassed with our performance level [Nov. 20] in Bemidji," Hakstol said. "Our entire week, which began that next Monday, had a focus of improving our battle level, our intensity level. We wanted to go out and make sure we found a level that we can be proud of. That's what the whole week was about."
According to Hakstol it was that top line that set the tone during the week. Kept off the board in 5-on-5 action all weekend against the Beavers, Kristo, Nelson and Knight took it upon themselves to have their best week of practice yet.
If their play against the Tigers was any indication, mission accomplished.
"Not only did they not score, they really didn't generate a whole lot of opportunities [in Bemidji]," Hakstol said. "They had a great weekend. It was the right response from that group of three guys, not only in the games Friday and Saturday but the whole week in practice was elevated in terms of their playmaking and their intensity."
Friday's 7-6 victory was one of the crazier games we're likely to see all season. The teams went back and forth in an offensive slugfest for the better part of 30 minutes. Rylan Schwartz capped his hat trick at the 10:54 mark of period two, giving the Tigers a 6-5 lead and forcing UND's Aaron Dell from the game.
"I think he had really only given up one bad goal though," said Hakstol.
In came Brad Eidsness, who slammed the door on CC the rest of the way, stopping 13 shots over the final period and a half.
"It was a change," Hakstol said. "At that point in time, you need to change something up. Brad went in and did a great job. He was the key to the turning point in the hockey game for us."
The first line took it from there, as Kristo scored an unassisted goal three minutes later before Nelson added a power play marker midway through period three to give UND their final 7-6 margin.
The trio combined for nine points on the night and accounted for four of the seven goals.
Hakstol, perhaps inexplicably, came back with Dell the following night. He responded with a 26-save effort, stopping 12 shots in the second period and 10 more in the third to secure the win.
Did the coach want to give Dell a chance to respond? Or was it just gut instinct?
"A little bit of both," he said. "There were a lot of bounces around him that led to some of those goals [Friday]. Coming back Saturday, I thought, would be a good challenge for him to come back and try and win a game for his teammates.
"I thought he did pretty good job of that. He battled hard and made a lot of good saves, big saves — including one with under a minute to go right at the top of his crease."
Nelson, Knight and Kristo scored a goal apiece Saturday, too — including Kristo's shorthanded goal with just under 14 minutes to play in regulation. With their seven points Saturday, the trio turned in a memorable weekend performance — tallying 16 points in all.
That trend is nothing new to the Sioux, however. In nine games together this season, Nelson, Knight and Kristo have scored 30 points in five wins. In their four losses, they've scored just eight points.
"It's a pride thing," Hakstol said. "Good players have a tremendous level of pride in how they play."
In the past, North Dakota has had notorious slow starts under Hakstol only to go crazy down the stretch. This year, the bad start and the changeover from a year ago is more drastic than in most of those other years, perhaps making the odds for another late-season surge more unfavorable.
But Hakstol insists his team is not looking at last weekend with any big picture implications. He said they're simply looking at it as a way to show a little bit of improvement each week as they enter the midway point of the year.
"The points were extremely important for us. Any way we can get points right now, we have to scratch and claw for every point available with where we're at."