There are those who believe that the best way to learn to swim is to be thrown into a lake. By the same token, two top-five teams will take the plunge on Friday night, as No. 5 North Dakota visits No. 2 Maine. There is truly no better way to kick off CSTV’s Friday Night Hockey schedule than with this marquee matchup, which pits the owners of last season’s top two winning percentages against one another.
THREE KEYS FOR MAINE
Jimmy Howard: You can’t talk about Maine without talking about Jimmy Howard. He’s quite possibly the nation’s best goaltender, and his 1.19 goals against average and .956 save percentage in 2004 are both NCAA records. The big, athletic Howard can win games on his own, and he will be counted on to do so for the Black Bears. The Ogdensburg, N.Y., native thrives on big games, and until March, they don’t come much bigger than this. Look for Howard to shine in front of the home crowd in Orono, as he assumes full responsibility for the Maine net after splitting time with Frank Doyle last season.
Balance: Last season’s run to the NCAA Championship game was fueled by a balanced scoring attack, with eight different Black Bears scoring 20-plus points. It’s all about balance for Maine, and that showed in the Bears’ season-opening win over Vermont, where seven different goal scorers helped put the first notch in the win column for Maine. Still, with no disrespect to the Catamounts, Friday’s game will be the true test. Michel Leveille could be a key part of this balance. Thirty-four of his 40 points in 2003-04 were assists. While Black Bears coach Tim Whitehead would love to see more goal production from his top returning scorer, which teammate will benefit from Leveille’s nifty passes is also a question. Leveille played on a line with Greg Moore and freshman Billy Ryan against the Catamounts.
Emotion: The Black Bears need to keep their emotions in check. Maine’s 19.1 penalty minutes per game were the most in Hockey East last season, and with the NCAA already cracking down on obstruction, the Black Bears will need to be careful not to let North Dakota’s physical defense (see below) get the better of them. The Black Bears were called for 14 penalties against Vermont, and that simply will not fly against the Sioux.
THREE KEYS FOR NORTH DAKOTA
Filling the Gaps: New head coach Dave Hakstol would love to have the focus on his current players, no doubt, but he won’t get his wish just yet. The focal point when talking about the Sioux for the first few weeks of the season will be how North Dakota recovers from the losses of both Zach Parise and Brandon Bochenski, who both bolted for the pros after putting up a combined 115 points last season.
The answer will undoubtedly start with a more mature Brady Murray. The Sioux’s top returning scorer from last season (19-27), Murray is year more mature, both physically and mentally. Murray put on 17 pounds of muscle in the off-season, and Hakstol says that the sophomore has not lost a step. Fellow sophomore Drew Stafford and senior Colby Genoway will also be called on to deliver for the Sioux, as will Travis Zajac, who is quite possibly the best offensive freshman in the country. Zajac put up two goals and two assists in North Dakota’s exhibition game, causing Hakstol to remark that the Winnipeg native “didn’t play like a freshman.” Hakstol, no doubt, hopes that trend will continue against Maine.
Physical “D”: The Sioux don’t have a blue line so much as they have a black-and-blue line. Sioux captain Matt Greene – an impressive physical specimen at 6-foot-3 and 224 pounds — is a natural leader, and he leads the North Dakota defensive corps in playing tough, physical defense. Assistant captains Andy Schneider and Matt Jones will also pack a punch, and keep your eye on freshman Kyle Radke. In time, you will likely see Radke quarterbacking the North Dakota power play, but Hakstol plans on giving the Alberta native time to develop and adjust to the college game before giving him that kind of responsibility.
Decisions, Decisions: From an Xs-and-Os standpoint, don’t expect Hakstol to come in and rock the boat. Still, Hakstol has some major decisions to make as he takes the helm of the Sioux hockey program, and the biggest decision of all could be what happens in net. North Dakota returns two quality netminders in sophomore Jordan Parise (2.05 GAA, .908 SV percentage) and senior Jake Brandt (2.25 GAA, .906 SV percentage), and freshman Phillippe Lamoureux gives the Sioux a third option. Hakstol certainly isn’t looking for a three-man rotation, and expects to have two main keepers within a few weeks. If North Dakota can get solid goaltending, the Sioux will be in excellent position to do some damage in the always-competitive WCHA.
North Dakota is looking for new offensive leaders, but with Howard in net for Maine, they may be tough to find. Meanwhile, Maine’s balanced scoring attack means there won’t be a dull moment for whoever is in the Sioux’s net. But then again, with these two teams, there won’t be a dull moment in general.
It’s the kind of matchup that makes you say, “Thank God It’s Hockey!”
Billy Jaffe serves as a hockey analyst for CSTV. He is a former college player at Michigan and has served as a broadcaster and an on-ice official for CCHA games. He is a regular contributor to CollegeSports.com.