Sunday, March 28, 2010

It's a team game after all

As another Fighting Sioux hockey season comes to an unsatisfying end, I'll state the obvious: size, speed, skill, talent and past victories will only take a team so far. The team that consistently plays inspired hockey and plays together stands the best chance of winning a national championship. Until Yale ended UND's season with a 3-2 win yesterday, I had no reason to believe that the Sioux weren't such a team.

Little RIT brought down the regular season champions from the nation's two most powerful conferences, the WCHA and Hockey East. And if Wisconsin doesn't bring its best game against the Tigers in the Frozen Four, all the Badgers' NHL draft picks and Hobey Baker finalists won't save them from the same fate.

For the rest of the season, I'm a Wisconsin fan if for no other reason than to prove ESPN commentator Bob Norton wrong about the WCHA. Last night, he couldn't resist taking a swipe at the league when reporting on Yale's win over UND. I like Norton because he actually knows something about college hockey, but his perpetual eastern bias is annoying, and it doesn't help when he goes out of his way to put in on display.

So, on Wisconsin!

Right and Wrong
There's no sugarcoating a season-ending loss, but it's worth noting that the Sioux did some of what they needed to do against Yale. It's what UND didn't do that ultimately cost it the game.

UND didn't get the quick start it needed. Yale had played just three games in the past three weeks. Bulldogs coach Keith Allain took a gamble when he went with a goalie Ryan Rondeau who had played only three games all season. That made a strong Sioux start imperative, but UND came out flat, which gave the Bulldogs time to shake off the rust and Rondeau time to gain confidence.

Yale got the first goal of the game when the Sioux flubbed the opportunity to clear the puck from their zone. Denny Kearney made a beautiful deflection off Thomas Dignard's point shot, and suddenly the underdogs had momentum. The Sioux cause wasn't helped when Jason Gregoire made an uncharacteristically bad decision that cost UND a chance for a two-man advantage.

So why the slow start? Did seeing Rondeau in net give the Sioux a false sense of confidence? Did it have something to do with playing a sparsely attended game without the usual number of supportive Sioux fans? Was it too many injuries? Or did physical or mental fatigue finally catch up with the team? Whatever the case, UND coach Dave Hakstol said after the game that he didn't see the letdown coming, nor could he explain why it happened. He didn't, however, think it had anything to do with fatigue.

Going into this game, I believed that if the Sioux could get Yale out of its game, they would stand a good chance of success. In some respects, UND achieved that goal. Yale came into the contest averaging 40 shots on goal per game. The Sioux held them to 23.

Rensselaer was the only other team to hold Yale to fewer shots on goal. That happened Jan. 30 in a game Renssalaer won 4-0 while outshooting the Bulldogs 26-22. Defensively, UND deserves credit for limiting Yale's high-powered offense to so few opportuntiies. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs took advantage of the few they got.

I also believed that UND needed to stay out of the penalty box to avoid giving Yale's power play – second in the nation – a chance to be a factor. The Sioux did that, too, limiting the Bulldogs only three power plays and killing them all.

The Bulldogs' defensive strategy appeared to be that any time the Sioux had a "Grade A" scoring chance, they would take a penalty rather than risk giving up the goal. It worked because UND didn't capitalize on any of its four power plays and Darcy Zajac just missed on his penalty shot. UND's power play has run hot and cold for much of the season. In a one-and-done playoff game, it was a poor time for UND's power play to go cold.

I noted in this blog back on March 12 that 7 of UND's 11 losses to that point had come when the Sioux were outscored in the second period. Now it's 8 of 12 as the Bulldogs outscored the Sioux 2-0 in the second period, thus becoming the only team to accomplish that feat since St. Cloud State did it on Feb. 12 and won 4-3. This was also the only period in which Yale outshot UND (10-6). Until Saturday, the Sioux had put their second-period lapses behind them.

Missing Pieces
Freshman Joe Gleason is the type of defenseman who's well-suited to play a team like Yale. But an injury suffered during the playoff series with Minnesota kept him out of the game. And although Jake Marto played exceptionally well, Hakstol admitted that the junior defenseman has been injured, not practicing for the past month and operating with limited ability. The Grand Forks Herald's Brad Schlossman reported in his blog that defenseman Ben Blood was playing hurt, too.

Under the circumstances, UND did a remarkable job defensively by limiting Yale to 23 shots on goal and keeping the Bulldogs' power play off the board. And while there's no point in crying over spilled milk, it's difficult not to think about how much of a difference Chay Genoway could have made in this game, both as a player and an on-ice leader.

UND's downfall throughout the season wasn't defense, it was scoring. That turned out to be the case against Yale when the Sioux didn't begin to generate quality scoring chances until the third period, capitalizing twice. As forward Matt Frattin noted after the game, by then it was "too little, too late."

Defensively, the Sioux were two bounces away from doing all they needed to do to win the game. They cut Yale's average number of shots on goal nearly in half; they held the nation's top-scoring offense to a goal less than it averaged; and they shut out one of the most potent power plays in the country. If the Sioux underachieved in any area, it was on offense.

Was it Coaching?
In each of the nine seasons I've covered Fighting Sioux hockey for U.S. College Hockey Online, I always learn something new from Hakstol and other coaches with whom I'm fortunate to interact.

When unranked Ohio State defeated Bemidji State in overtime at the Subway Holiday Classic at Engelstad Arena, I asked Beavers coach Tom Serratore if his team had a hard time getting up for the game against the Buckeyes after defeating No. 1 Miami the previous day.

The ever-glib Serratore replied, "I'm a coach. I think our team should be up for every game."

That's an important lesson because no matter how much coaches and fans want to believe that their team is completely fired up and totally motivated to play any team it faces, human nature and plain-old bad luck are always waiting in the wings to throw a monkey wrench into the best laid plans.

It's easy to think that UND should win a national championship every year -- until you stop to consider all the factors that conspire against it. As Gen. Tommy Franks says, "...the enemy gets a vote." In other words, no matter what you plan for your team, the opposition will do all it can to make the plan go awry.

One of Hakstol's favorite expressions is: "Control what's yours to contol." Throughout six seasons of covering Sioux hockey under Hakstol's guidance, I have no reason to believe that he doesn't do his best to control what he can. In the course of a season, he must make hundreds of judgement calls with the potential to produce negative results. He deserves credit for getting the vast majority of them right.

Compared to even the elite teams in college hockey, UND under Hakstol has been a model of consistency, going to the Frozen Four four times, making the NCAA tournament six years, winning the WCHA tournament twice and claiming a league championship. That's to say nothing of the reputation UND has garnered for producing pro-caliber players.

Even some of the UND's harshest critics express grudging respect for what Hakstol and his coaching staff accomplish season after season. How many times has he been asked: "How do you do it?" To say that most college hockey programs are envious of UND's record of success is an understatment.

I'm as disappointed as anyone that another hockey season has come to an end without the Fighting Sioux adding a national championship banner to the rafters of Ralph Engelstad Arena. But I can't wait until next season when I walk into the arena, remind myself that, yes, I am in Grand Forks, ND, and feel confident that no matter happens, Hakstol, Cary Eades and Dane Jackson will have the team primed and positioned to make a run at No. 8.

There's really nothing else that anyone can reasonably expect.


Anonymous said...

Great post. I couldn't agree more. I'm really excited about next year with all of the players that are returning. It was a great run, but anything can happen in a one and done format. Yale just seemed to want it more the first two periods. I think all of the whining about Hak and Co. needs to stop. They've done a remarkable job with continuing the strong tradition of the program.

Goon said...

awesome post my friend.