The 'Scary' Night Everything Changed
North Dakota's Season Turned After a Players-Only Meeting
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
For the defining moment of North Dakota's season, it's been pretty well established by now that it came in November after a Friday night home loss to St. Lawrence.
At that point, North Dakota dropped to 4-7-2. The team had undergone slow starts before under Dave Hakstol and always recovered. But this was different. This wasn't a slow start — it was a terrible start.
"Every (slow start) has been so different. Every season, every start, every finish," Hakstol said. "The personnel has been different, the scenarios have been different. So I don't lump it all together, and I don't make too much of it. I know with this year's team, we knew we had a transition to make. We lost a senior class that played a ton of minutes in every situation and we had much less balance with that group. Coming into this year, a little bit of a changing of the guard. We had to have younger players step into much larger roles. We had to have freshmen come in an assume roles. We knew that was going to be a challenge. We got hit by the injury bug. And we didn't have the wherewithal and the depth to overcome that."
Faced with a season on the brink, following that loss to St. Lawrence, Hakstol decided to wait to step into the locker room for his usual post-game chat. Perhaps he was just trying to cool off himself.
That decision was pivotal, because it led to an impromptu players-only meeting that ultimately turned the season around. North Dakota went on a 10-game unbeaten streak from there, and a 15-2-1 run.
But that was hard to forsee that night.
"That game is one I'll probably remember for the rest of my life," UND forward Rocco Grimaldi said. "We got in the locker room and coach didn't come in for quite a while, and we had to wait in the locker room for him to address us before we could take off. Things started getting heated and personal in there, and the biggest thing was, 'Are we a family right now or are we just kinda here. Are we living off of the past or are we trying to add to the tradition of this program.'
"Things got real, and some guys spoke up that usually don't, myself included. I don't really speak up that much, but that was one time I felt was necessary. I think that was good for our team to have different guys step up and talk and get real with each other instead of being so cliche and too touchy-feely, and really get to the core of the problem."
North Dakota defeated St. Lawrence the next night, and was off and running from there.
Grimaldi said everyone had gotten too comfortable resting on laurels, and perhaps laurels that weren't even their own, but from North Dakota's past.
"We were just too comfortable that we're big, bad North Dakota, and all the players that had come through the program on different teams, and we were just living off the past and satisfied with that," Grimaldi said. "We were satisfied with average performances, and good performances but not excellent. And guys just really got in each other's faces and said, 'We need more from you, more from you.'
"And it wasn't just pointing fingers, it was guys pointing at themselves as well and saying, 'I'm going to give you guys more.' And I think that's something a good team needs, where guys can point at themselves and say, 'I'm going to get better, and I'm going to do this for you, and you do the same for me.' And that's what we did."
The following week, a pair of 3-2 road wins, was where Hakstol really felt the team was back on track.
"A week later at Western Michigan, they were hard nosed, could've gone either way," Hakstol said. "We won two games on the road, and that's when I thought we started taking a step forward."
Of course, because of the bad start, no matter how well the team played from there, it still put itself in danger of not making the NCAAs. One slip up, in the NCHC semifinals, was all it took to send North Dakota off the bubble.
But, because of the NCHC consolation game, which it won handily over Western Michigan, there was still hope if things played out right that Saturday. As it turned out, the team had to sweat out a win by Wisconsin in overtime of the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State.
"That was a scary night," Grimaldi said. "It was kind of miserable, especially when they were down 2-0 and 4-2, and we were praying for them to win that game. And when they scored that (overtime winning) goal, we were jumping up and down like we won a national championship. And I think that was good for our team to see how excited we were just to be here, and what a blessing it is just to be in tournament.
"We knew that we could do some damage, and we're here now."
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About playing Minnesota in Thursday semifinal, Grimaldi said: "We know they're a deep team, skilled, they have four lines and a goalie. I wouldn't say they have a go-to guy, they have solid lines. Obviously they're No. 1 for a reason."
On being one of three players 5-foot-8 and under (Grimaldi is 5-6) who lead their teams in scoring among those at the Frozen Four: "I think that's just a testament to how the game's changing in allowing guys like myself and others to have a big impact for their team. It's great to see that. I kinda laughed when I saw that (stat). People have been doubting me my whole career, and I'm sure they've been doubting them too."
On comparisons to Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau, the nation's leader in points and a former teammate on the World Junior team: "He's got a lot more skill than myself and he's got double or triple the points I have. He's a juggernaut. I'm trying to be a two-way guy and priding myself on taking faceoffs, so I think that's one way we're different, he's a winger, I'm a centerman so we have different responsibilities. But we both have great desire to win the game and help our team in any way."