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Mark Schuttenhelm, For The Sun

It might seem odd, but I need to come to the defense of the NCAA. Two seasons ago, in the midst of the Fighting Sioux nickname controversy, I used quite a bit of ink blasting the NCAA on a regular basis.

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Last week, the NCAA announced the national tournament regional sites for the next two years. The 2015 West Regional was awarded to Scheels Arena in Fargo, with UND as the “host.” That simply means if UND makes the tournament, it will automatically be placed in the Fargo bracket.

This is obviously great news for UND fans. No long road trip to Green Bay or Grand Rapids. No need to fight Gophers fans for a seat in St. Paul. Instead, UND fans will be able to see their team in the national tournament and stay at home. This is great stuff. Apparently though, not everyone in North Dakota was happy about it. So what’s the issue here?

The NCAA has avoided using on campus rinks as regional venues for many years now, but awarded the 2015 MidWest Regional to the Compton Family Ice Arena at Notre Dame. This apparently has some UND fans and local radio hosts up in arms. Scheels Arena only seats about 5,000, they say, why didn’t the NCAA use the Ralph? It’s a beautiful arena, a palace as far as rinks go, and seats 11,000.

If they’re going to go on campus at South Bend, why not Grand Forks also? The NCAA must be punishing us again, that’s it. Well, not exactly. The NCAA made clear, in its announcement, that it had no neutral site bidders for the 2015 MidWest Regional. With no other options, the NCAA decided to use an on-campus rink. Case closed. There’s really nothing to get upset about, and while I find it rather distasteful to defend the NCAA, that’s the way I see it in this case.

UND-Northern Michigan Recap

UND took care of business last weekend with a home sweep of Northern Michigan, the first home sweep of the season. It’s hard to find much wrong with Friday’s 4-1 win. Scoring was distributed nicely with goals by blue-liners Paul LaDue and Dillon Simpson and forwards Luke Johnson and Mark MacMillan.

UND was 2-4 on the power play while killing all three short-handed situations it faced, and held Northern to just 25 shots on goal, well below the season average in the low 30’s. The face-off battle also went to North Dakota, 31 to 21. Zane Gothberg wasn’t spectacular, but did what was asked of him in goal.

Of the victory, coach Hakstol said, “Overall we played a pretty good hockey game,” and “Every game is critical for us right now.” Goal-scorer Paul LaDue said “We buried our chances,” and “We know these games are must win.” Luke Johnson, who scored what would turn out to be the game winner, said “Overall it was a good effort,” and “In the last four games our energy level is much better.”

The 3-1 win on Saturday came with much more difficulty, and while UND was outplaying and outshooting Northern Michigan for the first 2 1/2 periods, the fiesty Swedish goalie Mathias Dahlstrom was able to turn aside everything the boys in white and green threw his way. I say “feisty” because Dahlstrom was definitely not bashful with his stick. He was quite entertaining actually, hacking and whacking away at anything in white that came near his crease. As the third period rolled on, it was apparent that the visitors were hanging on out there ... it was simply a matter of whether the goaltender could stymie UND for the full 60 minutes.

It took a great set up from Michael Parks and a wonderful shot, top shelf on the long side, by the freshman from East Grand Forks, Gage Ausmus, to tie it midway through the third. North Dakota continued the pressure and Drake Caggiula scored the game winner from the slot about 4 minutes later on a great feed from behind the net by Rocco Grimaldi. Zane Gothberg wasn’t very busy with just 14 shots on goal, but again, did what was asked of him.

As you might imagine, a come-from-behind win, home sweep, five-game winning streak ... all make for a pretty happy group, and the post-game interview room was a pretty good place to be. Coach Hakstol called it a “Tight, hard-fought game,” and a “street fight.” Regarding the come from behind nature of the win, he said “We were able to dig out of a hole where nothing came easy,” and he was being brutally honest when he said “Tonight wasn’t a pretty game, we know that.” Asked about the Pattyn-Gaarder-Rodwell line, Hakstol had nothing but praise for the unsung group, saying “They’re chipping in with some timely goals,” and “They play against the other team’s top line and have done a good job against them.”

Asked for the key to the five-game winning streak, Rocco Grimaldi said “Work ethic, I think we’re working a little harder the past few weekends, battling harder,” and “we’ve righted the ship.” Goal-scorer Gage Ausmus said, “We knew we needed a character win to end the first half of the year.”

Around the Country

If I wasn’t at the Ralph, I would’ve been in St. Cloud taking in the best match-up of the weekend, Union vs. St. Cloud State. This pairing had a lot going for it. No. 1 vs. No. 10 in last week’s poll ... east vs. west, or midwest, if you prefer ... two teams that don’t meet all that often. The tiny school from Schenectady, N.Y., made a big statement on the road, coming within 20 seconds of sweeping the Huskies at one of the louder and more hostile buildings in the country. The 4-1 win and 3-3 tie has Union on a 10-game unbeaten streak and made St. Cloud’s stay atop the uscho.com poll a short one. Elsewhere, Denver also made a nice road statement with a win and tie at Rensselaer. The Pioneers are now the stingiest team in the country, allowing just 1.83 goals against per game. Minnesota State extended its winning streak to 7 with a sweep of Alabama-Huntsville and Wisconsin has now won four in a row after a home sweep vs. Colorado College.

Stat of the Week

It’s safe to say most North Dakota hockey fans are well aware the team has been a strong second half finisher under coach Dave Hakstol, but the numbers are so striking they’re worth a look. In nine years under Hakstol, UND is 91-62-17 before Christmas, a .585 winning percentage. After Christmas, Hakstol’s troops have put up an impressive 144-56-22 record, for a winning percentage of .698. To take it a step further, in games played after January under Hakstol, UND is even more dominant, 96-30-13, for a .737 winning pctg.

Poll Glance

There’s one glaring omission in this week’s poll, and that of course, is North Dakota. Let’s compare UND’s record (9-7-2) and schedule strength (10th) with three teams that clearly do not deserve a spot in this poll over the Fighting North Dakotans. Yale at 6-3-3/42nd, Denver at 9-6-3/45th, and Nebraska-Omaha at 8-7-1/23rd. It’s inexplicable. Vermont (8-5-1 & 4th) is also getting a raw deal.

Frozen Dozen

Vermont and Wisconsin are in this week, replacing Miami and Lake Superior State. 1) Minnesota, 2) Providence, 3) Ferris State, 4) Michigan, 5) St. Cloud State, 6) Union College, 7) Quinnipiac, 8) Boston College, 9) Clarkston, 10) U Mass-Lowell, 11) Vermont, 12) Wisconsin

There will be no column next week as the college hockey world takes a deep breath and prepares for the second half. I’ll be back first week of January with an in-depth review of North Dakota’s first half and a look ahead as well.

Mark Schuttenhelm’s column on college hockey runs                 each Thursday in The Sun

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