By this point, people from the East are doubtless sick of hearing about the strength of this season’s WCHA. People from within the league are frustrated as well, not with the talk, but with trying to make a case that they belong in the NCAA tournament with the selection criteria that are in place.
Consider North Dakota. The Fighting Sioux won in overtime at No. 2 Minnesota on Friday, giving them a program-best 20 wins for a second consecutive season. Last year, a fifth loss to eventual national champion Wisconsin in the WCHA tournament left UND just short when selections were made. This season, the Sioux climbed a spot to third in the league, and currently sit tied for sixth in the PairWise Rankings, where the wrong combination of events on the ice could slam the NCAA door on them once more.
“Don’t get me on a rant about the RPI, because how much stuff do you have to have out there to show?” coach Brian Idalski says. “It was one thing when it was just the Big Three, and they beat everybody underneath. But here I am going, ‘I know once we can compete in this league, I’m going to get a bid. All I have to do is break into the top three in our league.’ Well, now Bemidji is fantastic, Ohio State, you go up and down.”
Coaches in the league commonly say that there aren’t any nights off in the WCHA schedule, and at first, that seems like one of those coach clichés. Over the season however, it does hold true. A week ago, UND made a slight misstep in its final game with last-place Minnesota State, settling for a tie, and paying a price in the RPI. On further analysis, the tie versus MSU isn’t a terrible result, as the Mavericks split against both Mercyhurst and Robert Morris, the top two teams in the CHA.
Next, the Fighting Sioux are faced with a best-of-three playoff series with Bemidji State, the sixth-place team in the conference with a less-than-intimidating 17-15-3 overall record, despite going 5-0-1 in nonconference play. Lose a game in the series, and the national tournament prospects of the Sioux take a hit; lose the series, and their season likely ends.
“Mathematically, we’re handcuffed,” Idalski says. “The sixth-place team in the ECAC is going to have a way better record than what a Bemidji is going to be. Bemidji can’t be a team under consideration. And it really hurts us, because jeez, they’re so tough to play against. I have the utmost respect for the job that coach [Steve] Sertich does. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be easy at all. It was an absolute war last year, and we were lucky to get by them. I know they’re going to compete and have a big chip on their shoulder to not let that happen again.”
North Dakota survived the Beavers in that three-game war last season, and is favored to do so again in large part because of the presence on its roster of two Grand Forks natives, Jocelyne Lamoureux and Monique Lamoureux-Kolls. Both have had huge seasons: Lamoureux leads the country in points and points-per-game, and Lamoureux-Kolls is in the top four in both categories. This week, they were nominated for consideration for the Patty Kazmaier Award, and will be serious contenders for the top prize, but voters shouldn’t ask Idalski to choose between them.
“Being identical twins, their games are so similar,” he says. “A lot of times when programs have a couple kids up, one’s a power forward, one’s a skilled playmaker, one is a goalie. But their games are so similar in regards to that. They’re both strong on the puck, they shoot the puck a ton, they compete extremely hard. So it’s going to be extremely difficult. The only thing that really separates them out right now is just the fact that we’ve moved Monique back to ‘D’ for the last 18 or so games, and she’s done a nice job and still producing from the blue line. It’s going to be very interesting. I have identical twins, too, and you can’t choose between your kids like that. It’s ridiculous to even ask.”
With Idalski understandably taking the diplomatic route, I turned to Lamoureux, asking her why her sister should be the voter’s choice for the Kazmaier, and she pointed to the value of Lamoureux-Kolls to the team.
“She was playing forward, not very long, only for the first two months of the season,” Lamoureux says. “She’s been at ‘D’ since December, so for her to be able to still be up there as far as points and produce like she does as a forward, but with a defensive responsibility playing against other team’s top lines. She takes first-line, second-line players out of the game. You can’t put a price on a player like that. I think that’s huge, her ability to be able to jump up in the play, but be so solid defensively.”
Having Lamoureux-Kolls on defense, rather than on a forward line with her twin, can at times work in North Dakota’s favor.
“You definitely have a matchup problem there,” Lamoureux says. “You don’t really see anyone trying to match up with another [team's] defensemen. She’ll be the weak-side D, and she just jumps up there and gets a two-on-one on a rush. You don’t really see that too much as a defenseman.”
The position change hasn’t posed a problem for Lamoureux-Kolls.
“I guess right now for our team and to help our team, I’m definitely more useful back there,” she says. “I don’t really see a downside to it. As a defenseman, you can control the play more. You see everything that’s in front of you. I wouldn’t say it’s not as tiring as playing forward, but you’ve got to more or less pace yourself. If I had to pick on any given day, I’d probably pick forward, but I grew up playing both positions, so it’s not a huge deal for me.”
She also offers some reasons why Lamoureux should be awarded the Kaz.
“She’s a complete forward,” Lamoureux-Kolls says. “She plays wing and center, and she takes care of the puck defensively before she goes on the offense. She blocks shots, and she gets the puck out of her zone. She adds an offensive punch that no one has been able to match this year. She’s leading the country in scoring, not just by a few points. She makes the players around her better.”
Lamoureux has had even more variety than her sister in her career; at one point, she played goaltender. That might partially explain why she’s had so much success this season exploiting goalies, with 33 goals and 46 assists.
“I played until bantams, and my older brother plays, so I’ve always had a knack for kind of watching goalies’ tendencies, whether it be on video or during warmup, or just playing against a goalie over a couple years,” Lamoureux says. “You know that if you have a pretty technical goalie, what they’re going to do. There’s got to be an opening somewhere, whether you’re able to pull the puck into your feet, and they’ve got to adjust. My dad was a goalie, too. Having that knowledge and them always just giving us pointers was always pretty helpful. I think patience is something I’ve definitely been working on; eventually, they’ve got to give you something.”
While Idalski may be hesitant to favor one over the other, he is perfectly willing to discuss what makes both sisters great hockey players.
“I think their compete level is second to none,” he says. “They’re at the rink more than anybody else; they shoot more pucks than anybody else. They’re not the biggest kids, they’re not the strongest kids, they’re not the fastest kids, but I’ll be darned if they don’t compete all over the ice. They’re just special, special individuals.”
In some ways, the siblings are the perfect hybrid of the modern player who does all of the off-ice training and drills, and past generations, where players spent every possible moment at a neighborhood rink playing pick-up hockey.
“I remember going out there when we were little, just being able to go out there all day,” Lamoureux-Kolls says. “My mom would blow the whistle when we had to come in. I think, you don’t see as many kids getting on the ice, going on the ponds and just kind of skating out there all day, but I think it’s definitely contributed to the level we’ve been able to get to is not just the off-ice work we’ve put in, but also growing up and being on the pond and being able to play pick-up hockey with a bunch of people and learning little things when you’re just a little kid.”
They’re still learning. One of the areas both have struggled during their collegiate careers has been in taking too many penalties.
“My freshman and sophomore seasons, I guess I was disappointed in myself,” Lamoureux says. “It’s an adjustment, I think, trying to be on the edge of being aggressive but not being careless, I guess you could say. That was a goal of mine coming into the season, really toning my minutes down. I still wish they were a little lower than they are right now, but it’s a work in progress. I’m definitely not taking the penalties that I used to be, and I think that’s just a part of maturing my game.”
After taking 100 penalty minutes last season, Lamoureux has reduced her minutes to 52. Still, it’s a flaw that could hurt in the Kazmaier voting. Penalties could hurt the team as well, because despite the reductions Lamoureux has made, UND is the nation’s most-penalized team by almost a minor and a half per game, serving an average of 16.2 minutes each game.
Because the twins were already sophomores when they returned from the Olympics and suited up for North Dakota, the team has a greater sense of urgency to achieve its dreams.
“We have a short window here,” Idalski says. “We acknowledge that. It sometimes takes two, three recruiting classes to get yourself where you need to be. I think [Michelle] Karvinen has definitely helped. She’s a world-class player, an Olympian. Even [Josefine] Jacobsen has played in a bunch of World Championships. She was the leading scorer in the Swedish league last year. I think we’ve put some nice pieces around [the Lamoureux sisters] to complement them. It’s definitely a lot of fun to be a part of this group.”
And nothing is as fun as winning. Lamoureux-Kolls says playing with confidence will be the biggest key to her team achieving postseason success.
“Any team from now on, like the top eight, everybody has confidence that they’re going to win, so for us, believing that we’re the best, and believing that we can beat any team on any given night, and just having that determination and confidence,” she says. “Having that grit and that energy can take you a long way.”