Opinion corner: Intriguing Frozen 4 on tapIt’s safe to say many of us are in mourning this week. The Sioux hockey season has ended, just one win away from another Frozen Four appearance. To make matters worse, UND was knocked out by arch rival Minnesota.
By: Mark Schuttenhelm, The Jamestown Sun
It’s safe to say many of us are in mourning this week. The Sioux hockey season has ended, just one win away from another Frozen Four appearance.
To make matters worse, UND was knocked out by arch rival Minnesota. But we have to face the facts here. The Gophers were a better team than North Dakota for the majority of the season. Minnesota won the WCHA regular season title handily. Yes, they did suffer a meltdown against UND at the Final Five. Over the long haul, however, the Gophers were the better team.
The announcers on ESPN were starting to make excuses for the Sioux when it became apparent the Gophers were in full control. Yes, it’s true that Minnesota had been home for the whole month of March. I noted the Gophers favorable scheduling situation more than a month ago in these pages. Yes, the Gophers only played one game the previous week at the WCHA Final Five while UND played three. But forget all the excuses. The Gophers and the Sioux played six times this season, and Minnesota won four of them. Case closed.
Thankfully, even without the Sioux, the Frozen Four this year is chock full of stories that should interest all hockey fans. Before we get to that, let’s take a quick look back at UND’s season.
Expectations were pretty high as the season started. UND was ranked No. 3 in the pre-season national poll. I thought that was a stretch considering the talent North Dakota lost from last season’s team, lest we forget Matt Frattin, Brad Malone, Chay Genoway, and many others.
But that’s the way the voters saw it. The Sioux have historically been slow starters under coach Dave Hakstol, and this season was no different. It wasn’t a shock when UND got trounced by Boston College 6-2 at the season opening Icebreaker Tournament, as it was pretty well established that BC was going to be a top 5 team this season. It was a bit of a shock, however, when the Sioux found themselves completely removed from the national poll after a 1-5 stretch, which included two losses at Wisconsin, two losses at Minnesota, and a split at home with St. Cloud State.
The next weekend, Nov. 19 and 20 at Bemidji, seemed to be the low point for North Dakota. The weekend started out fine with a 5-2 win on Friday. North Dakota followed that with a 1-0 loss on Saturday, where they mustered only 26 shots on goal and struck out on six power play chances. Word got out that the coaches were not happy with the team’s effort. At that point UND was 4-7-1 overall and 2-6 in WCHA play.
This was starting to look pretty ugly, even for a team that usually plays its best hockey late in the season. Whatever was said or done by the coaching staff during the week of practice after the Bemidji shutout helped to right the ship.
No. 3 in the country (at the time) Colorado College came into the Ralph the next weekend and UND came away with a huge sweep. It would prove to be the series that turned things around for the Sioux. North Dakota put up an impressive 22-6-2 record the rest of the way. Even with the turnaround, an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament was in question right through the WCHA playoffs.
Back on Feb. 5, with the Sioux outside of the NCAA tournament field, I theorized what it would take for UND to get that at-large bid. I said right here in The Sun that sweeps at home against Minnesota State and Michigan Tech, coupled with splits on the road at Denver and Duluth, AND a couple of wins in the WCHA tournament, should do it. Proving that even a local hockey columnist can be right once in a while, I nailed it. UND went 3-0-1 in the home games and 2-2 at Denver and Duluth. When North Dakota went 2-0 against Bemidji in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, their at-large bid was quite safe, although not totally assured yet.
Of course, this proved to be needless worry, as the Sioux went on to get an automatic bid by winning the WCHA tournament. However, a non-appearance in the NCAA tournament was a real possibility for a while there. The Sioux hockey program overcame a very slow start, a multitude of injuries, and other distractions this year. The coaches and players should be commended for putting together an excellent season. Now let’s take a look at the Frozen Four.
Ferris State of Big Rapids, Mich., vs. Union College of Schenectady, N.Y., and Minnesota vs. Boston College.
The contrasts between these two matchups are like night and day. Underdogs on one side, powerhouse programs on the other. Union and Ferris St. are making their first Frozen Four appearances.
Minnesota and BC have been there 20-plus times. Defensive minded squads on one side, teams that can really put the puck in the net on the other.
Fans of the underdog have to love the Ferris vs. Union matchup. Union College is a tiny school in upstate New York with an enrollment of about 2,000. Union is one of the few Division 1 hockey programs that does not give athletic scholarships. A defensive minded team, they allow only 1.8 goals per game and have a great goalie in Troy Grosenick. On the scoring side, they’re led by 6-foot-3 forward and 27-goal scorer Jeremy Welsh. The Dutchmen are the champions of the ECAC regular season and tournament.
Ferris State, winner of the CCHA regular season title, is a team without a superstar. A hard working, close checking team that scores about three goals a game and gives up about two. Ferris won a couple of 2-1 games in their regional, and you should expect a low scoring, close game here. Either of these teams will be somewhat overmatched against the Minnesota-BC winner, but we know what can happen in single game elimination. A bad bounce or a hot goalie can make the difference.
On the other side we have the powerhouse programs. Boston College, the Hockey East regular season and tournament champ, is clearly the best team in college hockey this year. They’ve been banging heads with Hockey East foes Boston U, Merrimack, Maine, and UMass-Lowell all season. And check out their non-conference schedule: Michigan St, UND, Denver, Notre Dame, Yale, Michigan, and they just smacked Duluth around 4-0 in the regional.
They have 7 players with 10-plus goals, led by Chris Kreider and Johnny Gaudreau. Goalie Parker Milner has a 1.70 goals against average with a .935 save percentage. With a 31-10-1 record and riding a 17-game winning streak, there’s really nothing negative to say about this outfit.
Regular season WCHA champions Minnesota, on paper, will have their hands full with BC. They played a much weaker non-conference schedule than the Eagles. The Gophers have given up 14 goals in their last four games, while BC has allowed only three. On the plus side, Minnesota has six players with 10-plus goals, led by Erik Haula, Kyle Rau, and this columnist’s favorite forward, Nick Bjugstad. They have a solid, if not great, goalie in Kent Patterson. The Gophers also have a slight size advantage.
Well that’s it. Time to drop the puck and see how this all plays out. Next week we’ll wrap up the season, and give you the latest on the Fighting Sioux nickname situation.
Schuttenhelm’s column runs each Wednesday through the college hockey season