January 13, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

North Dakota Looking For Annual Second-Half Surge

by Kelly Erickson/CHN Reporter

Injuries are unavoidable, they are simply part of the game.

But while North Dakota has seen its roster dwindle, it has been able to turn its season around and create the sort of the success that is synonymous with the reigning WCHA regular season and Final Five champions.

“We’ve gone through a lot of struggles throughout the year,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I think it’s made us mentally tougher as a team, a little bit closer as a team and I think the results are some close, tight hockey games.”

After making its way to the Frozen Four last year — only to be shut out by Michigan, 2-0 — North Dakota had a shaky start to its season, going 4-7-1 over its first 12 games. During that skid, UND suffered two major road sweeps — one against a surging Minnesota team, the other against a waffling, youth-ridden Wisconsin squad.

With four losses to WCHA rivals already counting against UND, things did not look much brighter when it lost the likes of forwards Corban Knight, Rocco Grimadli and Derek Rodwell, and defenseman Derek Forbort.

“The bottom line is, you have to focus on who is available and for those guys that are in the lineup,” Hakstol said. “They have to be very focused on what they need to contribute in order for our team to win.”

But everything changed when then-No. 4 Colorado College came to town. Sweeping the Tigers with 7-6 and 4-3 victories, senior defenseman Ben Blood partially credits the series as a turning point for the struggling North Dakota team.

“I don’t think there was one set weekend, but I remember getting a lot of momentum out of our home sweep of CC,” he said. “That was our first actual weekend sweep of the season and I think a lot of guys after that weekend, looked at what it took to win those games and get those four points at home against a really good hockey team.”

Following CC, UND went on to win five of it’s next seven, dropping only one game and notching a tie in another.

During that stretch, as more players succumbed to injuries, North Dakota’s talent and depth started to show as three more players notched their first points of the season and more players scored multiple points per game.

Through the first 12 games UND averaged 2.4 goals per game with a total of 29 goals through that stretch. In the nine games since, UND has scored a total of 36 goals for an average of 4 goals per game.

According to senior forward Mario Lamoureux, more guys are simply buying into UND hockey.

“A lot of our young guys stepped up and played a bigger role,” Lamoureux said. “That’s something that we needed and I think the older guys have stepped up and really taken the bull by the horns. I think it’s just been an effort all the way around, getting contributions from a lot of different guys in different situations.”

“It’s always motivating to see you guys step up and take their game to a new level to help out the team and to better the team,” Blood said.

Sporting an 11-8-2 record overall, UND currently sits sixth in the conference with a 7-7-0 WCHA record — eight points behind first-place Minnesota, which comes to Ralph Engelstad Arena this weekend for a critical rivalry series.

And perhaps a chance for some redemption.

“We had a tough start,” he said. “We dug ourselves a pretty deep hole and to this point we basically dug ourselves out of that hole. Now there’s a long road in front of us to keep trying to scratch and claw our way forward. We’ve got good people in the locker room and that’s where it starts.

“We’re in sixth place in our league, we need to get points.”

At the beginning on November, North Dakota made the trip down to Minnesota, only to leave empty handed, losing 2-0 Friday night and 3-2 Saturday night.

“There’s definitely that rivalry and obviously being swept there earlier in the year stings a little bit still,” Lamoureux said. “I would definitely say there’s a little bit of revenge.”

“I think everyone knows what they did to us down there, so I think everyone has that in mind,” sophomore forward Brock Nelson said. “But we just need to focus on playing our own game and playing a full solid 60 minutes both Friday and Saturday.”

Minnesota boasts the top goaltender in the conference in Kent Patterson, who leads the WCHA with a 1.99 goals against average.

But with the way UND has been able to turn its game around and get the puck in the net on a more consistent basis, Lamoureux said he was confident things would turn out better for his team this time around.

“You’re probably not going to score a whole lot of first shots on him … we’ve got to be able to get to some rebounds, get in front of him,” he said.

While North Dakota hopes to carry its recent success through a strong conference run, this weekend will also be the first time the team will take the ice without its Fighting Sioux nickname.

Blood and Lamoureux both said it would surely be different with out the name, but said they’ll always be Fighting Sioux.

“You can take away a name and a logo, but you can’t really take away what’s in our hearts,” Lamoureux said.

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