When Brian Idalski became the head coach at North Dakota prior to the 2007-08 season, he inherited a team that hadn’t won a conference game the year before.
“When I took the job, I thought four recruiting classes, we could be competitive,” he said. “Now looking back at that, I don’t think that was off base; I think that was pretty on target.”
There wasn’t a lot of impact in the freshman class for Idalski’s fourth season in 2010-11; only defenseman Kayla Berg, now a junior, remains. However, the fortunes of UND were transformed that year by the arrival of a pair of sophomore transfers, twin sisters Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux, fresh off the United State Olympic Team.
They combined for 50 goals and 111 points their first year back in their home town, and upped their production to 60 goals and 153 points as juniors.
North Dakota recorded back-to-back seasons of at least 20 wins, and is on pace for a third. In March, it became the first WCHA team other than Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota, and Wisconsin to advance to the NCAA tournament. Once the goal of being competitive is achieved, a coach looks for bigger goals.
“Now, it’s becoming an elite, championship-caliber club,” Idalski said. “I think I potentially underestimated what that means. I just think the game has accelerated so much in these last few years where you went from if you had a couple good lines and a couple ‘D,’ you were a championship-caliber club. Well, between Wisconsin and Minnesota the last couple years, now you’ve got to have U-22 players on a third line, and you’ve got to have a 10th forward that can step up and play some minutes, and your D-corps better be absolutely fantastic. And then, you need a world-caliber goaltender. So it’s a lot different to take that next step. I don’t know if I anticipated that being as difficult as it is.”
UND has added some other pieces to the championship puzzle, particularly at forward. Finnish Olympian Michelle Karvinen contributed 24 goals and 61 points last season. A strong freshmen class arrived this year, highlighted by Canadian Under-18 player Meghan Dufault.
Despite the available talent, North Dakota struggled out of the gate, losing five of its first nine games as Karvinen was out with an injury. Once she returned, so did the winning ways; the team won seven straight and appeared to be cruising back into the thick of the national tournament picture.
Instead, four straight conference losses on the road at Wisconsin and Minnesota, the two most recent national champions, brought UND back to earth. Now it is in a precarious position, at 13-9-0 and 10th in a PairWise Ranking, which will advance at most eight teams to the tourney, on the eve of a second series versus the Badgers, another team in desperate need of wins to build a case for the selection committee.
“Beating each other up is going to hurt us nationally,” Idalski said. “There’s just no way around that. That’s the way it is, and I learned that early on here, you’ve got to win the league. You’ve got to be one of the top two teams, you’ve got to win the playoff, or there’s no guarantee. I never wanted to be that third team sitting on the bubble again. I think [the WCHA is] going to get two teams in and that’s it.”
Should it fall short, North Dakota will be left to turn its attention to next year and beyond and a future without the sisters who have been the face of the program for the past three years.
“Obviously, they’re two amazing players, and they’ve built this program really well, but next year, we have to have more people stepping up, younger girls, because we’re going to have a younger team,” Dufault said.
If she is in Grand Forks, Karvinen will be foremost among those asked to shoulder a greater burden. However, the Finnish hockey federation has yet to determine whether or not it will centralize its Olympic team in preparation for the Sochi games. Whether it is in the fall or an additional year away, Karvinen is ready for such a challenge.
“I think losing two key players is not always fun, but I think it gives the opportunity to other players to step up and I’m sure we have the potential for many of the players to do that,” she said. “Of course, I look forward to that too, because it’s an opportunity for all of us to grow as players and take a new role. It’s something that will help us overall on the ice.”
For whatever reason, teams with star players can often struggle to get the maximum effort from the remainder of the roster.
“Jocelyne and Monique are such key players, it’s easy for players to put the responsibility on them,” Karvinen said.
An hint of what the future may hold may be found at Ohio State, where the Buckeyes graduated their two top offensive players in program history in Natalie Spooner and Laura McIntosh, but are enjoying an even better season thus far.
“The guys on their side talk a little about that too, where it got to a point where people would stand around and watch [Zach] Parise and expect him to do everything,” Idalski said. “I still think that we suffer from that on occasion, where we defer and expect Jocelyne and Monique to bail us out and make plays, which isn’t how you win championships. We can win some games that way, but I don’t think we can take that next step playing like that.”
“We had a little rough start, and we’re kind of getting back now, kind of getting a little bit more confidence and believing in it more,” Karvinen said. “I think over the break at Christmas, we worked really hard, and I think that will pay off the next couple weeks here and the rest of the season. I think it’s just we’ve got many new players in the beginning and it takes a little time for them to get used to the level here. I think we’re getting there now, and I look forward to the rest of the season.”
Dufault was one of those newcomers needing to adjust. She has scored six goals in four games in 2013, after finding the net five times in the first half of the season. Dufault scored twice Friday against Minnesota and two-time Olympian Noora Räty, regarded as one of the top goalies in college hockey.
“It’s encouraging to know against this type of goalie that they can go in, and if you keep battling they will,” Dufault said.
Of late, the rookie from Winnipeg has been skating on UND’s top line.
“She’s really developing well,” Jocelyne Lamoureux said. “I’ve been playing with her for a little while now, and she’s really coming along,” I think she’s finding some more confidence. Keep holding on to the puck; not looking for the pass right away. She’s going to be a big player for us down the stretch.”
While offensive production has carried the UND program to new heights, team defense has not always kept pace, and that shortcoming has been primarily responsible for preventing greater success.
“Growing up, I’ve been more of an offensive player, so it’s definitely probably the biggest adjustment for me is learning to play defense,” Dufault said. “As a team we’ve been focusing on that, so personally, I have to work better at that.”
She’s also had to make an effort off of the ice.
“I’m not the tallest or the biggest player out there, so I’ve got to work on being able to battle with the biggest girls, so that’s something I should be working on in the weight room,” Dufault said.
Despite the nine losses, North Dakota has made some gains competitively.
“We definitely haven’t given up the goal on the first shot of the game like we were in stretches last year and fighting to play from behind,” Idalski said. “Even our losses this year have been close as games where we’ve had a chance to win every game. That wasn’t the case last year. When we weren’t doing very well or we’d get behind by a couple, it just imploded, and there was no way to recover for that. This year, I think we’ve had an opportunity in every game to win it, we just haven’t made plays when we needed to, or we lacked a little discipline down the stretch. I think that’s a maturing factor in just understanding how to control your emotions in the clutch.”
The periodic lack of discipline manifests in the team’s penalty minutes; with 14.9 minutes per game, UND is the most penalized team in the country. That places pressure on a middle-of-the-pack penalty kill that is successful 83.2 percent of the time.
“We’re relying heavily on some of those younger kids, specifically defensively to make plays and to do some things,” Idalski said. “That’s not necessarily always a recipe for success to throw a freshman in there and say, ‘Okay, play at a high level.’ I think there’s very few kids of that caliber: the twins, [Amanda] Kessel, Hannah Brandt. You can probably name on two hands kids over the last ten years who’ve been able to do that. I’m happy with their development; it’s a process. Dufault is coming on for us. [Becca] Kohler still game-to-game can be dominant, shift-to-shift can be dominant, but hasn’t put it all together. I think Tanja Eisenschmid for us has been superb defensively. I never had a kid who moves the puck as consistently flat and on the tape as her — very underrated. I don’t know if many people understand fully just how smooth she is. She’s been huge. So those are all encouraging, and those kids are kind of the future of the program and are going to have to take on bigger roles next year. [Josefine] Jakobsen is taking more of a leadership role for us with Andrea Dalen as sophomores.”
The immediate future centers on the next series, as Wisconsin visits the Ralph Engelstad Arena. According to Karvinen, the team welcomes the opportunity to play the Badgers again.
“I think we’re very hungry toward them, because we could have done a lot better when we played them last time,” she said. “We’ll be a hungry team meeting them, so I look forward to it. Playing against the top teams, that’s why you play hockey. That’s the fun games to play. That’s when you improve and you can push not just like your own skills, but also as a team as a whole.”
The games are unlikely to resemble those that UND played at Minnesota the previous weekend, where the teams combined for nine goals in each game.
“It’s definitely going to be a bit of a different match-up versus them,” Idalski said. “Hopefully, we can carry some of that momentum with the power play and some of that offense, and sharpen up a little bit defensively. Last time we played, it was more of a defensive battle — 3-2, 3-1, closer-to-the-vest type of game.”
The torch may be passing at season’s end, but for now, Lamoureux is still one who bears it. She’s looking forward to facing another premier goaltender in Alex Rigsby.
“We really got to bury our chances when we’re there, because they don’t come very often against good teams.”