FF Capsule Preview: North Dakota
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
Resume: 25-13-3, NCAA Midwest Regional champion
North Dakota enters this week’s NCAA Frozen Four as the lone team remaining that isn’t a No. 1 seed. Make no mistake, though — after toppling Wisconsin and Ferris State in a pair of hard-fought one-goal games last week and after a compelling second half surge, North Dakota is well-deserving of its Frozen Four berth.
For North Dakota, it’s the program’s 20th Frozen Four appearance since 1958 — more than any other team in college hockey over that time span. And for Dave Hakstol, it’s his sixth Frozen Four appearance in his decade as North Dakota’s head coach. On three of those six occasions, including this season, his team has advanced to the Frozen Four with an overtime win in a regional final.
Spotlight On ...
Dillon Simpson, Senior, Defenseman
Simpson is one of two North Dakota seniors (Derek Rodwell is the other) who experienced the team’s last Frozen Four in 2011, when a talented team featuring the likes of Matt Frattin, Danny Kristo, and Brad Malone had a 15-game unbeaten streak snapped at the most inopportune moment – a 2-0 loss despite 40 shots on goal in a national semifinal game against Michigan. Simpson, though, didn’t play in that game.
Three years later, as the captain, Simpson has helped lead a much more unheralded group of players to college hockey’s grandest stage, and he’s done so by pacing his team in power-play goals (6) and by commanding the most prolific blueline in the country, which led the nation in points per game (2.76).
Simpson, though, recognizing that his play in the defensive zone – especially at this time of the year – is potentially even more important than his offensive contributions, focused his energies on keeping Wisconsin and Ferris State at bay at the Midwest Regional last weekend. Simpson didn’t register a shot on goal in either game, but his nine blocked shots helped extend his nation-leading total (107) in that category.
Simpson is a 2011 fourth round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers – the same organization with which his father, Craig, won two Stanley Cups (1988 and 1990).
For many college hockey teams still playing in April, defining moments occur during stretch runs, conference playoffs, and NCAA tournament triumphs. For North Dakota, its first and perhaps most important defining moment of the season happened just days after Thanksgiving, after a 5-2 loss to St. Lawrence dropped UND’s record to 4-7-1. And its 2-7-1 10-game record was the worst such stretch in head coach Dave Hakstol’s decade in Grand Forks.
After the loss to St. Lawrence, the players held a closed door meeting – players only – and although the details of the conversations in that room that night won’t ever be fully known, the effect was clear, as North Dakota didn’t lose again for almost two months and has been 21-6-1 since that meeting.
“I look back and I fall back on the strength of character that we knew we had in our locker room,” Hakstol said.” Just as a staff we had to try to bring that out and help that grow and develop and come more to the forefront. The rest was all the players. They’re the ones who’ve done all the heavy lifting.”
Added Simpson, “It's been a season of ups and downs and adversity, but I'm really proud of how everyone came together.”
Despite North Dakota’s second half-surge – something of a tradition over the last 10 years in Grand Forks – the team’s NCAA hopes appeared bleak after falling to Miami in the semifinals of the NCHC tournament.
The next day, behind a two-goal effort from Connor Gaarder and an impressive goaltending performance by Zane Gothberg – indeed, in what was actually a foreshadowing of things to come – North Dakota rebounded with a 5-0 win against Western Michigan in the NCHC third-place game. Still needing several chips to fall into place, North Dakota watched anxiously later that night, finally clinching an NCAA at-large bid when Wisconsin beat Ohio State in overtime of the Big Ten tournament championship game.
Certainly, it’s been quite the second chance for North Dakota, now two wins away from a national championship. And of course it’s fitting for this team in particular to take such advantage of its opportunity – a team clearly composed more of hard-working role-players than celebrated stars.
“There's no other avenue for us,” Hakstol said. “We've known that from day one – we've got to have everybody chipping in, and that's going to mean somebody different on any given night is going to be scoring a goal or two. That's just the makeup of this team. That's kind of a personality trait that this group has embraced, and we know that's a formula for our success on any night.”
Added Grimaldi, the team’s leading scorer, “I love that we have a full four-line team this year. I think every guy has a vital role. There's a new hero every night… It's just good to know that we can go deep into the playoffs and deep into the games, and we can put anyway out there and trust them to play their role and to do a great job with that.”
The most recent hero, of course, was Gaarder, the junior forward who scored the overtime game winner in the Midwest regional final against Ferris State that sent this North Dakota team to the Frozen Four. It’s been a long journey for the junior forward, who memorably struggled to finish conditioning drills during his first days with the team as a walk-on freshman.
Said Hakstol, “I'm sure all of our teammates remember him having trouble finishing that conditioning drill, but I'll also guarantee you that they'll remember the will that he showed in actually finishing it. And that's what stands out to me. It's not that he was a half step slower, it's what he did when he actually hit that wall. He just kept going.”
Gothberg Takes the Reigns
Sophomore goaltender Zane Gothberg spent much of his first season and a half splitting time in the crease with senior netminder and close friend Clarke Saunders.
“We’re best buds away from the rink and at the rink too,” Gothberg told CHN in January. "We push each other no matter what, whether we’re at the rink or playing Xbox back home”
Shortly after, Gothberg missed over a month of games due to a lower body injury. Since he’s returned, though, the Thief River Falls, Minn., native hasn’t relinquished the starting role, which he claimed for good after a two-game sweep at Minnesota-Duluth (Feb. 21-22), an effort that included a 33-save shutout in the weekend’s first game.
Since Nov. 30, Gothberg has won 18 of 23 games, leading the nation during that stretch in goals-against average (1.71) and save percentage (.934). The sophomore made a career-high 44 saves in North Dakota’s regional final win against Ferris State last week.
“Saturday night Zane did a great job for his teammates,” Hakstol said. “He did his job, and that's what you have to do when you're part as a team.”
Players to Watch
Rocco Grimaldi, Sophomore, Forward
The unquestioned best player in the nation this year has of course been presumptive Hobey Baker winner Johnny Gaudreau of Boston College. But the trend of small forwards dominating college hockey has been pervasive – Gaudreau is 5-foot-8, as is Minnesota leading scorer Kyle Rau. For North Dakota, it’s been 5-foot-6 Rocco Grimaldi, a native of Rossmore, Calif., who led the team in scoring with 17 goals and 22 assists in 39 games.
His hat trick performance against Wisconsin in North Dakota’s NCAA opening round game last weekend was Grimaldi’s first multi-goal performance of his career. The often elusive Grimaldi also has three power play goals and three shorthanded goals this year and has played a pivotal role on a North Dakota penalty killing unit that has thwarted 45 of the last 49 opposing power play opportunities.
Stephane Pattyn, Junior, Forward
Pattyn may have only seven goals during the season, but four of them have come in the junior’s last nine games – three of which have been power-play tallies. And that’s because during North Dakota’s stretch run, coach Dave Hakstol gave the junior forward a new, important role on his power-play units.
“Great net front, something we've talked about a lot this year and something we've really needed," Simpson said. "He's been great there. He loves going to the net. He's got a good stick in front. I can't say enough good things about what he's done for our power play.”
Said Hakstol, “He has elevated his game throughout the year. He's playing a larger role for our team right now 5-on-5 and in terms of the power play he provides a couple of specific elements that a successful power play needs. He's good at recovering pucks, so he's very good with possession, and he's a guy who we saw last weekend who's not only good at getting to the top of the paint but he's also pretty good, because he's worked so hard at it, at getting some tips and rebounds.”
Pattyn on Thursday’s matchup with Minnesota: “No team really wants to play us – we know that. That's what we want. We want to be the biggest pain to play against for every team... They're a good team. They're going to be playing their game. I think if we play our game, it'll be a good matchup.”