Thursday, March 6, 2008

Will things change or stay the same?

During the four seasons of the Dave Hakstol era, St. Cloud State has engineered some big wins over the Fighting Sioux. But it’s been UND that’s come up with the important late-season victories over the Huskies when they mattered most.

For example, in 2005, the Sioux went to St. Cloud for their last regular-season series desperately in need of points to secure home ice and to improve in the PairWise Rankings. UND and SCSU played to a 2-2 tie in the Friday game and the Sioux won the Saturday game 2-0. That finish, combined with a three-point series against Wisconsin the previous weekend, secured home ice and began the momentum that carried UND all the way to the national championship game against Denver.

During the 2005-06 season, coach Bob Motzko’s first year at SCSU, the Huskies went 3-1 against the Sioux during the regular season, including a sweep of UND at home. But in the game that mattered most – the WCHA Final Five championship – the Sioux won their fourth Broadmoor Trophy by defeating the Huskies 5-3.

The 2006-07 season saw UND travel to St. Cloud once again for the final series of their WCHA schedule. The Huskies, ranked second nationally, went into the weekend with a chance to catch league-leading Minnesota. Eighth-ranked UND had a chance to move up to third place in the WCHA. The Sioux tied the first game and dominated the second game, winning 7-2. That gave UND enough points to capture third place in the conference and avoid the Final five play-in game.

UND and SCSU met again in the conference tournament and, once again, the Sioux put on a dominating performance, defeating the Huskies 6-2. UND went on to defeat Michigan and Minnesota in the NCAA West Regional to gain a third consecutive Frozen Four appearance. SCSU never recovered from its losses to the Sioux and was “one and done” in the NCAA playoffs.

None of this is to say that the Sioux can afford to take the Huskies lightly. I don’t think they will. However, history shows that UND under Hakstol has traditionally used its late-season games against SCSU as a springboard to success in the playoffs while the Huskies have faltered. Will history repeat itself this weekend? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Fighting Sioux Coaches' Show summary

With UND coach Dave Hakstol somewhere on the road and Fighting Sioux basketball on the radio tonight, Tim Hennessy had captain Rylan Kaip and assistant captain Taylor Chorney on the show. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that the show started early tonight because of basketball, so I only caught a small portion of what they had to say. Hakstol called in by cell phone later to give a few comments.

Both Kaip and Chorney think Denver and Colorado College will split this weekend. Chorney called it one of the better rivalries in college hockey.

On the upcoming series with St. Cloud State, Chorney said that the Sioux would have to be sharp defensively. Every team in the league has enough skilled players that it you take off a shift or two, the puck will be in the back of your net.

When Hakstol phoned in, Hennessy asked him about his votes for the All-WCHA team. He said that he hadn’t done his voting yet. There are a lot of guys in contention. He’s going to sit back and take some time before he votes. There aren’t really any can’t-miss players this year like there are some years. He hopes that everyone around the league takes some time to look at the players and what they’ve done throughout the season, not just statistics. He said it’s important to consider consistency and what a player brings to the table besides scoring.

Regarding the success of former Sioux player Jonathan Toews with the Blackhawks, Hakstol agreed with Kaip and Chorney that nothing he’s accomplished in the NHL surprises them. Watching him day in and day out for a couple of years at UND, Toews acted like a pro then, not just for games, but for practices and how he prepared. “What he’s doing is pretty special, but you can’t say it’s a surprise,” Hakstol said.

Hakstol said the Sioux want to be in position to take advantage of whatever might happen between Denver and Colorado College.

Regarding the injuries to Chay Genoway and Evan Trupp, Hakstol said he didn’t know if Genoway would play this weekend. He said it was safe to say that Trupp won’t be available, but he doesn’t know how long that might be. With Genoway, he’d just be guessing and he really doesn’t know, even at this point in the week.

Whether or not Genoway plays will first be based on what’s best for him and then what’s best for the team. They’re not going to put him at risk for further injury. The team comes second. They have a lot of confidence in the guys who can step in for Genoway. He said Jake Marto has done a good job for the team this season.

Hakstol said he doesn’t agree that SCSU has more to play for than UND and will play with more desperation. He said both teams have a lot to play for. The Sioux are playing to get better every week and to build momentum by winning games. He can only assume that the Huskies will be hungry and play desperate hockey. But he also assumes that the Sioux will show up and play the same way.

Hakstol said that both Kaip and Chorney are even-keel as team leaders. Throughout the season in practice and in games, they’re even keel, hungry, focused and driven to play well.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

And Hakstol said: Let there be depth!

All season long, UND coach Dave Hakstol has touted the depth of this year's Fighting Sioux team. Fortunately, they have gone through most of the season without serious injuries. But now with sophomore defenseman Chay Genoway and freshman forward Evan Trupp out indefinitely, the team's depth will be tested this coming weekend against St. Cloud State and probably beyond during the playoffs.

It's a terrible time of year to lose players such as Genoway (6 goals and 16 assists) and Trupp (8 goals, 5 assists and 5 game-winning goals) who have contributed so much to UND's 15-game unbeaten streak. They're key parts of the second power play unit, which clearly suffered in their absence during Sunday's game at Duluth. They also play on UND's penalty kill.

Hakstol has been through this before. The 04-05 Sioux lost Rylan Kaip at mid-season and a number of players were in and out of the lineup with injuries. To make matters worse, Robbie Bina, Brady Murray and Mike Prpich went down during the WCHA Final Five. Prpich returned and played hurt for the NCAA tournament. A cobbled-together line of Erik Fabian, Brian Canady and James Massen helped carry that team all the way to the Frozen Four championship.

The 05-06 team lost Fabian in the last game of the regular season against Michigan Tech. In the first game of the best-of-three series against Minnesota State, leading scorer Drew Stafford went down with an injury in an overtime loss to the Mavericks. Stafford sat out the Final Five, but Kaip picked a good time to score the first two goals of his career in a 3-2 win over Wisconsin. The Sioux went on to win their fourth Broadmoor Trophy by beating SCSU 5-3.

Last season, the team struggled through injuries to T.J. Oshie, Jonathan Toews and Jean-Philippe Lamoureux, but rebounded in time to make a third straight appearance in the NCAA Frozen Four.

So although the Sioux will certainly miss Genoway and Trupp, all is not lost. The wisdom of Hakstol's decision to give playing time to freshmen defensemen Derrick LaPoint and Jake Marto now becomes obvious. Both of them have strong offensive upsides. Can one or both of them combined make up for Genoway's absence? Can they limit rookie mistakes? We will soon find out.

Trupp's absence might be somewhat easier to cover. Brad Miller has shown occasional flashes of brilliance during his three years at UND. He could certainly help fill the void, and his playoff experience is a definite plus. And what of Matt Frattin? He began the season playing on the top line with Ryan Duncan and Oshie. Now would be a good time for him to break out of his scoring slump.

Kaip has demonstrated a knack for scoring big goals in the playoffs. Junior forward Matt Watkins has also shown scoring ability. Ryan Martens has gotten better as the season progressed. It could be his time to shine.

The good news is that the Sioux are virtually assured a spot in the NCAA tournament. That means there's time for players to step up their games and fill roles they haven't needed to fill during the season.

As Desaix told Napoleon at the Battle of Marengo: "There is yet time to win another battle!"

Don't look now, but...

Following North Dakota's last series at Minnesota-Duluth, Fighting Sioux opponents now have more penalties and penalty minutes than UND.
  • UND: 268 penalties, 685 penalty minutes

  • Opponents: 270 penalties, 694 penalty minutes
In addition, the gap between UND's power play opportunities and those of its opponents continues to grow. The Sioux have had more or the same number of power plays per game as their opponents 20 times while opposing teams have had more power plays in 13 games.

UND is 12-1-2 when it has more power plays, 3-2-0 when it has an equal number of power plays and 8-5-0 when it has fewer power plays. Therefore, as the stats demonstrate, it's not to UND's advantage to "goon it up."

Monday, March 3, 2008

The weakest link? It's not Lamoureux

When I interviewed UND goalie Jean-Philippe Lamoureux for US College Hockey Online near the end of January, I reminded him that before the season started, many "experts" considered goaltending UND's weak link. He responded by saying:

"The confidence that I have in myself and the amount of work that I put in to be successful and be prepared, it’s almost music to my ears. To know that if I’m going to be the only weak link on the team this year, that’s going to be fine with me because I know what my abilities are. I understand the amount of work I have to put in and the type of preparation I need to be mentally and physically ready to play. If I’m going to be the only weak link, then so be it. If I’m the weakest link, we’re going to be all right."

Just look at where UND's "weak link" is today. Lamoureux's 1.68 goals-against average is No. 1 in the nation and his .934 save percentage is tied for first nationally. His .719 winning percentage is fifth nationally. He's a big reason why UND gives up a nation-best 1.79 goals per game and why the Sioux kill 89.3 percent of their penalties, despite being the second most penalized team in the country.

As the regular season winds down, Lamoureux is the one Sioux player with a legitimate shot at the Hobey Baker Award. Given the talented NHL draft choices on the team, who would've predicted that at season's start? Certainly not me. But just as Hobey winner Ryan Duncan was UND's most consistent player last season, Lamoureux has been Mr. Dependable this season.

It wasn't long ago that some Sioux fans were decrying UND's inability to recruit a world-class, shutdown goaltender. Well, now you've got him, and he was right under your noses all along.