Learning Experience

It was a question for the Fighting Sioux all year: Could a team with such a young defense survive the season?

Everyone in Milwaukee knew the answer to that question by the 18:08 mark of the first period in the first semifinal between Boston College and North Dakota. It was at that point that the Eagles led the Sioux 3-0, having exposed and exploited the youthful group that left junior goaltender Jordan Parise hanging in the first 20 minutes.

Freshman forward Drew Stafford said that the Sioux were “a little bit” surprised that the Eagles netted six goals in the contest.

Brian Lee and a young UND defense had a tough time of it Thursday (photo: Melissa Wade).

Brian Lee and a young UND defense had a tough time of it Thursday (photo: Melissa Wade).

“They’re a great, highly skilled team with guys up front that can put the puck in the net,” he said. “You have a game like tonight, give them a few chances, a few odd-man opportunities, and they’re going to put a few pucks in the net. I think we’re a little disappointed with the way we played.”

Through 46 games, North Dakota relied on a defense that included freshmen Taylor Chorney, Joe Finley, Zach Jones and Brian Lee, sophomore Kyle Radke, and junior Matt Smaby. While a lot had been made coming into this contest about the number of freshmen both BC and UND carried on their rosters this season, Sioux head coach Dave Hakstol said that too much is made of the youth factor.

“I think at this time of year, personally, I throw the age or the youth factor out the window,” Hakstol said. “Once you get to this point in the year, everyone’s been in enough battles that … you know, it’s about execution and playing well.

“There were some breakdowns both ways tonight. There were some outnumbered opportunities in both directions, and an awful lot of good opportunities. That was just the flow of the game tonight.”

However many breakdowns the two teams shared Thursday, every North Dakota mistake found its way to the back of the net in the first period. In spite of outshooting the Eagles 12-5 in the opening stanza, the Sioux found themselves looking at a three-goal deficit that proved impossible to overcome.

BC freshman Brett Motherwell looked like a pro when he used a North Dakota defender to screen Parise for the Eagles’ first goal, and Hobey Baker finalist Chris Collins broke into the UND zone for two goals on the fly, the first a shorthander that bounced off teammate Mike Brennan’s skate at the other end, the second a shot from the left that hit the upright and bounced in for the 3-0 lead.

Two North Dakota goals had the Sioux within one toward the end of the second period, but again defensive breakdowns led to another BC scoring jag, with goals by Anthony Aiello and Chris Collins 4:04 apart, late. At the end of Sioux Chris Porter’s penalty for high sticking, BC freshman Anthony Aiello stole the puck and scored on Parise, five-hole, at 15:38, and at 19:37, Collins completed his hat trick on the power play.

“Those two goals certainly turned the momentum back Boston College’s way,” said Hakstol. “After the first period, we were down 3-0, but we felt that other than a couple of mistakes that we made, we felt like we were playing pretty well. We just wanted to go into that second period and chip away at their three-goal lead, and we were able to do that until late in the period. Those two goals were a real momentum swing back … in Boston College’s favor.”

Hakstol took some of the blame for those two goals himself, attributing the mistakes he referred to to “tired legs” and a line change. “Line change at the end of a penalty kill. Tired legs at the end of the second period. Tired legs led to a bad decision of having two defensemen change at the same time and that was what allowed the opportunity.”

The Sioux’s defense was exploited in other ways as well. In addition to turnovers and some on-ice decisions that showed a little lack of experience, six of the eight North Dakota penalties were taken by freshmen, leaving the penalty kill short defenders and active often.

Parise said that having to play catch-up for 60 minutes was “extremely frustrating … especially when we get ourselves back in the game and then we give up two quick ones right at the end of the second period and all of a sudden it’s a three-goal game against and we’re fighting another uphill battle.

“That’s what this game was; it was just an uphill battle.”

Of course, from the glass-half-full perspective, next season the Sioux return a battle-tested defensive corps, one that has proven that it never gives up.

“I’m proud of the guys in the locker room,” said sophomore forward Travis Zajac. “We never quit all game.”

Said Hakstol, “There was not an ounce of quit until the final buzzer and that’s been a trait of this team through the entire year. We may have been counted out at certain points this year, but we always bounced back and battled.

“We did that tonight and I’m very proud of our players for that.”