Dave Hakstol likes his team.
The second-year coach of the Fighting Sioux feels that despite their youth, and the significant turnover of players from last season, his team is where it should be — and that is in the hunt for the WCHA regular-season title.
“We feel pretty good about our expectations this season,” said Hakstol after his team finished a pregame workout in preparation for their clash with the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Ralph Engelstad Arena. “We set realistic expectations, and we are just trying to get better each week.”
The Sioux have had some ups and down so far this season, which is expected with a young team. Winners of five of their past six against Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State (their only loss in that stretch) and Michigan Tech — with all of those games on the road — the Sioux return to the Ralph, where they have lost three of their last four. They knocked off Denver 3-1 on Oct 28, and then lost the following night. The next weekend, they were swept at home by Wisconsin.
“We’re hoping to do well this weekend, which would keep us on track for what our goal was this half of the season, and that was to hang around and be in position to make a run in the second half.”
In their way this weekend are the Golden Gophers. Swept by the aforementioned Badgers last weekend at Minnesota, Goldy arrives in Grand Forks with a bit of revenge in mind, despite not talking about it very much.
As the team dined at the home of the Potulny family here in Grand Forks Thursday night, in the back of their minds is the fact that their season was ended by the Sioux last season in the Frozen Four.
The Gophers bring high-end talent, a ton of speed, and a team that despite playing its home games on an Olympic-size rink, competes quite well on the smaller NHL-sized sheet (200×85) as well.
Hakstol has done a remarkable job in molding this group. Everywhere you look on this roster, you see freshmen playing key roles. Next to them you see veterans molding them in the winning tradition of Fighting Sioux hockey.
“Our kids are improving, and they are getting comfortable at this level,” said Hakstol. “What I like about these kids, especially the defensemen, is that they do not play the game afraid to make mistakes. They try things, to make plays, and that is exactly what we want.”
Those kids include Andrew Kozek, who after scoring 67 goals in juniors last season, reached the scoresheet for the first time this past weekend when he netted three against Michigan Tech. T.J. Oshie, who has brought the same tenacity and competitive nature to the ice that Zach Parise did, has been every bit the player the scouts raved about in the preseason.
However, we are only at the midpoint, and how many young teams have fans seen hit the wall? Growing pains are part of success. One remembers the young Edmonton Oilers in 1983, after losing to the Islanders in the Stanley Cup finals, remarking how that loss set the tone for their run of five Cups in seven years.
North Dakota has felt that already. Hakstol, in his freshman year behind the bench, guided the Sioux all the way to the title game last season before losing to the defending champs from Denver.
Those who remain remember that loss, especially forward Drew Stafford.
“The past two seasons, Denver has ended my season,” he said. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten that.”
Hakstol’s challenge was to build a routine with his new team. Now that the practice plan is in place, and a lot of teaching has been done, it is time to guide his team into an area where it can continue to improve through repetition in practice, and experience in games. The challenge for Hakstol is to be prepared for the eventual wall that his young kids might hit.
And speaking of hitting, along with Minnesota State and Wisconsin, no team physically pounds teams like North Dakota. That also factors in: how much can the body take when it is constantly in collision mode?
Hakstol realizes this, and yes, it is a concern.
“Our physical maturity — we are not as developed as, say, a team like Wisconsin,” said Hakstol, who was not shy about using the body in his own playing days. “We have quite a ways to go there. You are talking about 18-year-old kids against 22-year-olds, and that can be a physical mismatch because the 22-year-olds are better developed,”
What Hakstol wants is to be in a spot where it’s 60 minutes to glory in the WCHA.
“There are very good teams in this league; we just want to be in a position where it’s one game versus a great team. We think we can win that.”
Their performance against the hated Gophers will go a long way toward proving if they can.