Ironically, North Dakota probably has Michigan to thank for it all.
Yes, the No. 1 Fighting Sioux have been tearing up the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in 1998-99, taking a 27-3-2 overall record into the last weekend of the regular season. But the team’s motivation may actually stem back to last year.
The Sioux had a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but got an unfortunate placement in the West Regional, where they would have to go through the host Wolverines at Yost Ice Arena.
UND led after two periods but slipped up in the third, and a pair of Michigan goals sent the Wolverines on to the Final Four and eventually the national championship.
To this day, Sioux coach Dean Blais can’t help but think things would have been a lot different if the game hadn’t been in Ann Arbor.
“I didn’t make any big deal about it when we went in there and played, but that was a huge advantage,” said Blais, in his fifth year at the helm of the Sioux. “If Michigan would have come here, we win — I’m not going to say by two or three goals — but I believe we would have won that game. Because that’s what home ice does for you.”
But the negative effects one loss can have can mean more than life the next year. North Dakota became only the second WCHA team to win three straight regular-season championships this season, taking the title handily.
And Blais thinks this year’s team is better than either of the last two — better even than the 1996-97 team which defeated Boston University in Milwaukee for the national championship.
“But we haven’t won it,” Blais said. “Michigan had the super team (that year) and Boston beat them (in the national semifinals). We still haven’t made it to Anaheim yet.
“Once we get there, don’t bet against us.”
It’s tough to question Blais on his word, considering the record the Sioux have amassed this season. A major component of their success, however, may be a little out of the ordinary.
“I get a different feeling about this year’s team versus last year’s team,” Blais said. “I think it has something to do with the schedule. We took a week off right away in the beginning of the year and went straight through. Then, two weeks off at Christmas and went straight through again. We had a week before we played Jan. 2 and 3 for the guys to get back in the groove. I think weeks off during the year sometimes hurt you. There’s more harm than good.”
If there has been a knock on UND this season, it has been that they have had to scrap down the stretch to get the wins. After a rally to victory over Alaska-Anchorage on Feb. 20, the Sioux had been forced to come back to win in six of their last 11 games.
Sure, they won those games, but what happens if they fall behind in the NCAA tournament?
Maybe the reason is Blais’ young defensemen. That was his primary concern early in the season, but the coach said they have adjusted well.
“We’ve won games sometimes 6-5, 5-4,” Blais said. “That’s my philosophy — let’s just outgun the other team. Defense is a lot of hard work and discipline. We feel that we have that. We don’t work on it to the point that we’re sacrificing other parts of the game.
“Certainly you’ve got to have good power-play and penalty-killing units, and you’ve got to be able to execute and score offensively. But we don’t do a lot of defensive coverage-type grinding drills, where guys lose interest in playing the game. That can drive you nuts as a coach.”
When you have to outgun opponents, you have to have guns. Bang.
The Fighting Sioux roster features four players with 39 points or more this season, led by Hobey Baker candidate Jason Blake (22 goals and 36 assists for 58 points through 30 games). But the clincher is that Blake is barely scratching the surface of UND’s depth.
Names like Jay Panzer, Jeff Panzer, Lee Goren, Brad Williamson and David Hoogsteen, not to mention quite a few others, always seem to pop up in the scoring sheets.
“That’s the name of the game, the depth that we have. It’s why we’ve been successful,” Blais said. “We’re leading the nation in scoring, so there’s plenty of firepower.”
The Sioux’ scoring prowess may be best exemplified by a stretch in early February when they scored 17 consecutive goals — the last nine against Denver and the first eight against Anchorage.
Understatement alert: “When we’re moving the puck and intense, we’re a pretty good hockey team,” Blais said.
“There’s real good balance up front and the real key is for our defensemen to play sound defensively. They join the offense but their big thing is to make an outlet pass, get the puck to the forwards. You can sit and have fun watching the forwards go down the ice, but get them the puck.”
Heck, the Sioux even have a kind of goaltending controversy going. While Blais has said that Karl Goehring (17-2-2, 2.53 goals-against average, .909 save percentage) will be his man come playoff time, it’s hard to overlook the job Andy Kollar (10-1-0, 2.87 goals-against average, .884 save percentage) has done.
“This is the first time I’ve seen it where both goaltenders have been about even,” Blais said. “Karl is our No. 1 goaltender, he’s fresh, but Andy’s only lost one game this year. That’s helped Karl because the way we run practice, you need three goalies because we do so many shooting drills that if you don’t have three, it’s just too tough.”
Despite everything Blais has going for him at North Dakota, talk of a dynasty is quickly muted.
“I’d say we’re going to get knocked off our pedestal here pretty soon,” Blais said. “We’ve pretty much had everything our way. Our seniors won (the NCAA title) when they were sophomores and there’s eight of them. That’s your core group and they’ve been real good from the time they got here.
“That’s what’s carrying this right now. The younger guys are just filling in, except for our goaltenders. We play freshman and sophomore goaltenders and three freshman defensemen. I guess there’s some reason to be optimistic in the future, but Jason Blake is leading the league, he’s a senior; Jay Panzer’s third in the league, he’s a senior; Williamson’s sixth in the league and he’s a senior. All of our seniors are in the top 20 in scoring in the league. That says a lot about how talented they are.”
Maybe that means the Sioux will have to win it all this year. Do they really need any more motivation?