GREEN BAY, Wis. — There have been challenges to the steely-eyed focus that North Dakota has built through an impressive closing stretch of the season, but what happened at the end of the first period Sunday might qualify as a primary entry on the list.
The Fighting Sioux were primed to take a 1-0 lead into the first intermission of the NCAA Midwest Regional final against Denver until the Pioneers’ Jason Zucker banked a shot off goaltender Aaron Dell and in with two-tenths of a second on the clock.
Their lead gone, Sioux players returned to the locker room and regrouped, just as they have with just about every other attempt to get at their focus.
“We’ve got a lot of older guys in our locker room, and I’d say a lot was said,” North Dakota captain Chay Genoway said. “We just wanted to get back to our game plan. Zero-zero hockey game is what we called it, and just go back to what we were doing.”
The result was just as it had been in what is now a 15-game unbeaten streak: No panic, no deviation from the game plan.
North Dakota scored twice in the second, three times in the third and shut down Denver’s attack in a 6-1 victory that sent the Sioux to their fifth Frozen Four in seven seasons under coach Dave Hakstol.
“It may appear that that focus is just over a couple of weeks or a month or two, but it’s something that is built over time,” Hakstol said. “You do the work over time. You build a base and that’s what you work off of. And you can’t skip a day, you can’t skip a step in the process. And the process started for us last April. After we came back to work after losing, we started the process, building toward this.”
North Dakota had notable NCAA tournament exits in each of the last two seasons, crashing out against New Hampshire in 2009 and against Yale last season.
Those experiences were the basis for what Sioux junior forward Brett Hextall called a chip on the team’s shoulder.
For North Dakota, focus is knowing what’s coming and being prepared for it. Focus is not letting distractions be distractions.
“Definitely, we have the talent in that locker room to do it, but it’s not that simple,” Hextall said. “We see now how hard it is to get here after two years of losing out in the first round. For us, it’s just a matter of keeping that focus through this next weekend that we’re going to have off and all this time here before we head to St. Paul.”
The process begins again when the Sioux return to practice Tuesday — or maybe Wednesday, Hakstol said, offering a bit of hope for UND players to get an extra day off for their efforts.
Eyes dead ahead. No long-range vision.
“I’ll say this: We’re prepared to go back home and go back to work, and that’s what we’ve done all year,” Hakstol said. “We’ve had a very short and narrow focus. We won’t look forward to 10 days down the road. We’re going to look forward to our next day of practice.”