Biding His Time
North Dakota's Grimaldi Ready for Postseason
by Tony Jovenitti/CHN Reporter
Next month, Rocco Grimaldi will play in his first NCAA postseason. But he’s no stranger to big games.
Grimaldi won two gold medals with the United States Under-18 team in the IIHF World Championships, and he added another with the U-20 team in the World Junior Championships last month in Ufa, Russia.
With just three weeks left until the WCHA tournament starts, North Dakota hopes Grimaldi’s experience will help the team down the stretch. After losing Brock Nelson, last season's leading scorer, to the NHL, North Dakota will need someone to help fill his clutch scoring void; Nelson scored four goals in the Final Five to give North Dakota its third straight Broadmoor Trophy.
“It’s hard to fill the void that Brock left, he was such a skilled goal-scorer,” senior forward Corban Knight said. “But Rocco’s definitely brought another scoring touch to our team.”
Grimaldi scored 10 times so far this season, while notching 24 points. Since North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol put him on the top line with Knight and senior Danny Kristo, he’s averaged nearly a point per game.
“He’s done a good job playing at a real high intensity level, and he has the kind of speed and skill that we need to play with those top guys,” assistant coach Dane Jackson said. “He’s really fit in and done a good job there.”
“For a while there, it was hard to try to find another winger for our line,” Knight said. “Rocco got put up there, and it’s been working pretty well since then. We put some good weekends together here.”
Grimaldi said he just tries to bring energy to whatever line he’s on and help the team win whatever way he can.
“I just try to work hard and do the right things in both the offensive zone and defensive zone,” he said. “We’ve been having a pretty good year this year, and hopefully it continues.”
Over the last four series, North Dakota earned nine points in the WCHA standings, and it currently sits tied with Minnesota for fourth place.
Last year, Grimaldi began his North Dakota career scoring a goal and an assist in four games. Then, he underwent season-ending knee surgery, forcing him to the sidelines as his team stormed its way to the WCHA tournament title and an NCAA tournament appearance.
“I learned quite a bit just being there and seeing the environment and the atmosphere,” Grimaldi said. “It was obviously exciting watching them go all the way to the Final Five and to win it, but it was bittersweet because I wanted to be out there with them battling.”
Unable to help his team as it fell to Minnesota in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Grimaldi said he vowed to take advantage of this season and “play every game like it could be my last.”
Jackson also said last year was a valuable learning experience for Grimaldi.
“It was an extremely hard year for him,” Jackson said. “But I think it helped expose him to the high level of play you need at this time of year to be effective.”
While observing North Dakota last year certainly helped, Grimaldi said his experiences playing in big games will be the biggest factor in helping him perform under the high-pressure situations throughout the next few weeks.
“I like those kind of games. I like the ones where there’s a lot on the line, a lot at stake and there’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “It doesn’t really get to me. So I’m sure it will be a new experience if we go to the Final Five and if we go to the NCAA tournament this year. But I have a lot of experience in the bank, so I’ll just use that as motivation for the new experiences that I’ll have this year.”
The first of those big games comes this weekend as North Dakota travels to Denver. Grimaldi says his team is prepared for the tough road series.
“Denver is a good team, they are extremely skilled and very offensive,” he said. “Playing against a skilled team, we have to stay out of the box and not take too many penalties to put their power play on the ice. I think we should be fine if we just stick to our game plan and force our will onto their team.”
After Denver, North Dakota ends the season with a home series against Bemidji State and a trip to Mankato, Minn., to take on Minnesota State. Jackson said the goal is always to win the WCHA regular season, but more importantly, he wants his team in a good position for the playoffs.
“We want to try to set us up to get as good a spot as we can for the national tournament,” Jackson said. “So our focus is to continue to improve and become as good of a team as we can down the stretch.”
Grimaldi hopes North Dakota can earn home ice advantage in the WCHA playoffs.
“To play a few more games in front of our fans would be awesome, especially for our seniors,” he said.
As if the pressure of the playoffs weren’t enough, there’s one more motivating factor for North Dakota – it’s the team’s final year playing in the WCHA before it heads to the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
“It adds a little bit to try to get your name on those trophies in the last year,” Jackson said.
“We’d love to go out on top and be the champions,” Grimaldi said. “Hopefully, we can take our program into the next stage being on top.”