Monday, April 11, 2011

The funny game

Last Thursday afternoon at the Xcel Energy Center, the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Roman Augustoviz asked me: "Do you see any way North Dakota loses this?"

It was an interesting question because after the Fighting Sioux beat the University of Denver to become the only No. 1 seed to make the Frozen Four, everything seemed to be lining up for UND to win its eighth national championship.

None of the teams that ousted the Sioux from the NCAA playoffs during the Dave Hakstol era – DU and Boston College in particular – were still playing. The location of the Frozen Four in St. Paul assured an atmosphere at the Xcel Energy Center that heavily favored UND.

Hakstol had a 2-0 record against Red Berenson’s teams the two times they’d met in the NCAA playoffs. Most believed that this year’s Wolverines weren’t as deep or as talented as some previous Michigan teams. Also, during the regular season, UND went 2-1 against Minnesota-Duluth and 1-0-1 against Notre Dame.

Going into the Frozen Four, UND appeared rested and relatively healthy, which meant that Hakstol would be able to play his best lineup and roll all four lines. And most importantly, the Sioux were peaking at exactly the right moment and playing their best hockey of the season. The players and coaches were more focused than any Sioux team I'd ever seen. Their goaltending was solid, every line was producing, the defensive corps was outstanding and the special teams were excellent. So there was every reason to be positive.

However, while driving to St. Paul the night before the Frozen Four started, I began thinking about the ways in which many great Sioux teams had fallen short since I began following UND hockey in 1996. Dean Blais’ teams of 1997-1998, 1998-1999 and 2003-2004 were highly regarded, but never made it out of the NCAA regionals. The four previous times Hakstol’s teams had made it do the big dance, hopes for a national championship were high, but the expectations were never realized.

So when I pondered Roman’s question, the realist in me recalled what had happened the past 11 times UND had been in a position to win a national championship, only to fall short of the ultimate goal.

I remembered poor goaltending, untimely penalties, flat performances, unlucky bounces, badly executed line changes, leads that evaporated, last-second goals in regulation, costly turnovers, goals in overtime and – most of all – opposing goalies who play the best games of their lives. (Do the names Adam Berkhoel and Peter Mannino ring a bell?)

And nobody should forget that the other team always gets a vote in determining the outcome. Any team still playing in April has a great deal going for it. 

As much as I hoped UND would take advantage of the opportunity to win its eighth championship, if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from the past 15 years of following the Fighting Sioux, it’s that in hockey, there’s no such thing as a sure thing.

The 2-0 loss to Michigan reminded me of something former UND player Jason Notermann once said (which I’ll paraphrase because I can’t find the exact quote):  Hockey is a funny game. Sometimes you score five goals on 10 shots, and other times you can’t score one goal on 50 shots.

Against Michigan, UND fell victim to one of those funny games at the worst time of the season. There were so many times that the top Sioux scorers had the puck on their sticks in prime scoring territory, only to be denied by goalie Shawn Hunwick. As Corban Knight put it, "The plays we were looking for weren't there. When they were, the goalie stood on his head."

What's become apparent over the 10 seasons I've been covering Fighting Sioux hockey for US College Hockey Online is that the team that looks like the favorite to win a national championship often isn't the one that prevails.  And that's one reason college hockey fans return again and again to watch this funny game.


Anonymous said...

I never got worried about the Sioux losing that game untill the last buzzer. The Sioux pretty much owned the game minus the first goal. I wasn't worried about this team because Dell has played so consistant and thought the only way the Sioux lose is by goaltending. I didn't think it would be a hot goalie that beat the Sioux either. I heard people say Hak didn't have his team ready. I don't agree with that as the Sioux absolutely domintated the second and third periods and besides the 1st goal of the game played pretty well in the 1st period. I believe if the NCAA playoffs were a series instead of one and done, the Sioux would have taken home the national championship. Berenson said it best when he said the best team doesn't allways win.

Patrick C. Miller said...

The only aspect of UND's game in which I was disappointed was the power play. However, given that UND had plenty of good scoring opportunities 5-on-5, I don't think that was a major factor in the loss. I didn't get overly concerned until there were 5 minutes left in the game. I felt that if the Sioux could get one goal, more would follow. Unfortunately, they never got that one.