It could be said that the more coach Dave Hakstol’s North Dakota Fighting Sioux teams change, the more they remain the same.
For the past two years, UND has teetered on the brink of elimination from playoff consideration, only to rebound with late-season surges followed by strong playoff performances.
However, heading into Friday’s 8:30 p.m. West Regional game at Ralph Engelstad Arena between UND and Michigan, Hakstol said there are few similarities between this Sioux team and last season’s.
“Last year, we had nine seniors and some juniors who were outstanding players,” Hakstol said. “This year, it’s flip-flopped. We have 13 freshmen on our roster. In the overall skill level of the two teams, there’s an entirely different makeup.”
During Hakstol’s first year as head coach, the Sioux used a fifth-place finish in the WCHA as their path to the 2005 Frozen Four championship game, where they lost 4-1 to Denver. They did it with a veteran team that battled through season-long injuries and adversity. It was a team that featured a big, bruising defensive corps that impressed even ESPN’s NHL broadcast team of Bill Clement and Gary Thorne during the NCAA playoffs.
With forwards T.J. Oshie, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Duncan on board and a group of gifted young defensemen that includes WCHA all-rookie team member Brian Lee, the talent among this year’s freshmen — considered one of the best rookie classes in the nation — is undeniable. Unfortunately for UND, all that remains of last season’s physical, experienced defensive unit are junior captain Matt Smaby and sophomore Kyle Radke, who saw little ice time a year ago.
Molding the young team into an effective, cohesive unit has been a challenge the past six months for Hakstol and assistant coaches Brad Berry and Cary Eades. In addition, developing leadership among the older players has been important to the team’s success, Hakstol said.
“That doesn’t happen overnight,” he explained. “It has to start small and grow from a core group of guys. It’s been a pretty close team all year, but even with a close group of guys, it takes time to sort things out.”
In late January when the Sioux were swept at home by St. Cloud State, it appeared that UND might not be among the four teams playing at the NCAA West Regional in Grand Forks.
“At the start of the year, I said we would be trying to gain experience throughout the year,” Hakstol said. “There’s only one way to do that, and that’s to go through ups and downs, tough road trips, and to grow up a little bit each time.
“Getting swept at home, that adversity was real good for this team,” he said. “The team reacted the right way to it.”
The Sioux quickly reversed their fortunes, going 10-3 since early February and finishing fourth in their league. In winning the Broadmoor Trophy at last week’s WCHA Final Five, UND looked anything but youthful and inexperienced.
Coming from behind in both games, the Sioux beat second-ranked Wisconsin 4-3 and then took the championship by defeating St. Cloud State 5-3 before record crowds at the Xcel Energy Center.
“We don’t think of ourselves as freshmen any more,” said forward Ryan Duncan, who had three goals and an assist during the tournament. “Everybody tries to make an excuse about how young our team is. We try to put that behind us and not even think about it.”
More impressive still, UND’s Final Five title came without the services of two junior forwards. Drew Stafford, the team’s leading scorer, sat out the tournament with a leg injury. Erik Fabian, who played a key part in last year’s playoff success, suffered a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago, and could only be a spectator at the tournament in which he last year participated.
“As I watched the team, I thought to myself, ‘Three of our best players out there right now are freshmen.’ It was just amazing,” Fabian said. “It was great to see that the guys could achieve this and not be nervous. I think it will carry over to the national tournament. They’ve got the tournament experience now.”
Hakstol credits Smaby, assistant captains Chris Porter and Mike Prpich and the team’s other upperclassmen with providing the leadership to turn UND’s season around.
“Your leaders within the locker room, at this time of year, it becomes their team,” he said “They’re the ones who go out and fight the battles and get things done on the ice.”
“We learned a lot from the older guys at the beginning of the year,” Duncan said. “We have over 40 games under our belts now. We’ve gained a lot of valuable experience and learned a lot this year.”
Another key factor has been the willingness of players to accept unaccustomed roles. For example, Hakstol said that one of UND’s most effective lines is centered by freshman Matt Watkins, with sophomore Rylan Kaip and freshman Andrew Kozek on the wings. Kaip scored the first two goals of his 60-game college career against Wisconsin at the Final Five.
When asked if playing on UND’s checking line was the role he envisioned for himself this season, Kozek replied, “No, not exactly. I liked to hit last year. That was something I did, but I didn’t think I’d be doing it this much this year.”
But he’s not negative about how he fits into the larger picture.
“I’m really enjoying it, and it’s something I love to do,” Kozek said. “We have so much talent on this team that you can’t really expect to play everywhere.”
“In Andrew’s case, by nature, he’s a pure goal-scorer,” Hakstol said. “He’s chipping in offensively. He’s bringing us the physical element. He’s bringing us energy and adding a lot to the package.”
The one constant for UND over the past three seasons has been the play of junior goalie Jordan Parise. Not only has he established himself as one of the top goalies in UND history (ranked second with 10 career shutouts and third with 53 career wins), but he’s also among the top goalies in NCAA tournament history with a 1.51 goals against average (fourth) and a .9415 save percentage (fifth).
At the WCHA Final Five, Parise was named the tournament’s most valuable player, making him the third Sioux player to earn that distinction.
Hakstol is pleased with his team’s recent performance and the fact that UND is playing in the NCAA West Regional as a number-two seed on home ice.
“That doesn’t entitle us to anything,” he said. “We’re one of 16 teams that have done that. The other three teams coming here (Minnesota, Michigan and Holy Cross) have the exact same idea that we have. On Friday night, we’ll be playing for the right to keep playing.”
For his part, Fabian believes this year’s Sioux team can accomplish one goal that last year’s team didn’t: win the NCAA championship.
“I like our chances right now,” he said. “It’s not going to happen if we don’t play well, but I do like our chances.”