ST. LOUIS — This is the first year in Frozen Four history that no No. 1 seeds have advanced to the championship tournament, and there’s a feeling in St. Louis that this is anyone’s title to capture.
Said UND head coach Dave Hakstol, “This is a Frozen Four where we have four teams that are realistically playing their best hockey of the year.”
Finishing Up Strong
North Dakota’s West Regional experience was a tale of two teams — the one that couldn’t keep the puck out of the net for the first half of the game against Michigan, and the one that shut down both the Wolverines and the Minnesota Golden Gophers for the remaining 90-plus minutes of the regional.
A Class Apart
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of UND’s sophomore class, which is responsible for 99 of 149 Sioux goals this season. Eight of UND’s top scorers went to their first Frozen Four one year ago.
Hobey Baker finalist Ryan Duncan (31-26–57) leads all comers in his class, and the DOTs — Duncan, T.J. Oshie (16-33–49) and Jonathan Toews (17-28–45) — call the shots.
“I think they’ve done a tremendous job this year,” said senior Chris Porter. “Obviously, Ryan’s line has done a great job. They’ve led us offensively and picked us up when we’ve needed it.”
With the early departure of five players from last year’s squad, said Porter, everyone has had to contribute to make this year a success.
“I think as a team, as a whole, we’ve welcomed everybody with open arms. The freshmen have stepped in and played a huge role. With the new NHL, guys are leaving early; young guys are asked to play a bigger role, and they’ve done a great job this year, and we’re really proud of them.”
Very Welcome Back
Two of last year’s Sioux squad had to watch the Frozen Four from the sidelines, both nursing injuries. Junior defenseman Robbie Bina missed the entire 2005-06 with a neck injury, while senior forward Erik Fabian was hurt in UND’s final regular-season contest.
This year, Bina is fourth on the team in scoring (10-22–32) and among the leading offensive defensemen in the country. Fabian has five goals and six assists.
“Erik Fabian missed last year’s Frozen Four [and] it’s almost immeasurable how much we missed him,” said Hakstol. “We were missing that little bit of an edge heading into Milwaukee last year, and part of that was having Erik Fabian out of the lineup.
Hakstol said that it’s “hard to quantify” what Bina means to North Dakota. “He has put up some good numbers, but it’s much more than that. It’s the attitude that he brings.”
This is the eighth year in which the NCAA has mandated a two-week break between regional play and the Frozen Four, to avoid a conflict with the men’s basketball Final Four. The time off can either help a team focus, or ice a hot squad “depending on your situation, depending on the health of your team,” said Hakstol.
“For us this year, our regional ended Sunday night, it was an overtime game, we had a long night of travel with some weather problems with our charter. I think the layoff this time, realistically, is a day and a half shorter than it would have been had we ended on Saturday night in the regional tournament.
“I think the timing has been a real benefit for us. We had three or four tremendous practices this last week, and I think that carries through to your readiness for game week, which for us is a routine of basically three days before game day.
“We were able to carry the week off and great practices right into this week, so I don’t foresee it taking much of an edge off.”
Pride of Five
North Dakota is making a bid to become the fourth WCHA team to win a national title in six years. The league has captured the NCAA championship for five years running: Minnesota (2002, 2003), Denver (2004, 2005) and Wisconsin (2006).
“I definitely think there’s some pride,” said Ryan Duncan. “We want to go out there … not only to represent the University of North Dakota, but the WCHA. We play in one of the best leagues in the nation, and we’re fortunate enough to be the last [WCHA] team standing right now, so we definitely want to put forth our best effort and represent the WCHA well.”