Many look at Minnesota's and North Dakota's 1-1-2 records against each other and declare the series a toss-up. They could be right, but certainly on paper, UND is a better team statistically. Its won-loss record, its finish in the WCHA and its Pairwise ranking all point to that conclusion.
However, I would argue that the team the Gophers will be playing at the Ralph this weekend has much more in common with the Sioux team they played in Grand Forks in November than it does with the Sioux team they played at the Mariucci in January.
One positive in the Gophers’ favor is that this time in Grand Forks, they’ll have forward Jacob Cepis, a player who’s provided the team with a significant offensive spark. In contrast, UND is without captain and top defenseman Chay Genoway, who the Sioux had when they went 1-0-1 against the Gophers at Engelstad Arena.
So…advantage Gophers, right? Not necessarily.
Much has changed for the Sioux since they last played Minnesota. When UND went to Minneapolis in January, Brett Hextall and Corban Knight were out with injuries. While it’s arguable that Knight would have been a difference-maker in that series, the Sioux have been a much improved team since Hextall’s return. And it’s not just because he helps make the power better and provides added scoring punch. Coach Dave Hakstol acknowledged that Hextall’s leadership on the bench and in the locker room was missed. UND was 3-4-1 without him and has gone 7-1-0 since his return.
Knight had just begun to play up to his potential when he went down with an injury the weekend before the Gopher series. While his offensive stats aren’t gaudy, the number of minutes he’s played in key situations have increased, which shows that Hakstol relies on the freshman forward to play a steady, consistent game. Knight deserves some credit for his role in UND’s turnaround, and he makes the Sioux a better team in the upcoming playoff series.
In addition, when UND played at Minnesota in January, Matt Frattin had only been back for four games since his half-season suspension. It would be another five games before he scored his first goal of the season. Since then, he’s scored five goals in seven games and is playing well on a line with fellow juniors Evan Trupp and Brad Malone. His overtime goal at Colorado College assured UND of home ice in the playoffs and might prove one of the most important plays of UND’s season.
One of the most significant changes for UND has gone unnoticed. In seven of UND’s 11 losses and in its tie at Minnesota, the Sioux were outscored in the second period by a 19-3 margin. During the team’s current seven-game winning streak, the Sioux have outscored opponents 14-4. That stat is somewhat skewed by a six-goal second period at St. Cloud, but it’s worth noting that UND’s performance in the second game against SCSU marked the beginning of the team’s second-half surge.
For whatever reason, the second-period letdowns that were a trend for UND earlier in the season (and which contributed to the Gopher win and tie at Mariucci in January) have all but disappeared. The one game in which the Sioux were outscored in the second period (1-0 at Colorado College), they won. Even throwing out the six-goal second period against SCSU, UND is outscoring its opponents 2:1 in the second rather than being outscored by better than 3:1.
When the Sioux outscored their opponent in the second period, they were 12-1-4. When second period scoring was even, UND went 6-3-0. In other words, the Sioux are 18-4-4 when outscoring or holding their opponents even in the second period. If the Sioux can continue the trend of strong play in the second period, I like their chances in this series.