“All of that credit goes to the guys in the locker room.” — North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol.
Despite racking up seven national championships and 16 Frozen Fours under legendary coaches such as Gino Gasparini and Dean Blais, UND had never put together more than two straight appearances in the national semifinals.
On Sunday, that changed courtesy of a wraparound goal off the stick of winger Chris Porter. North Dakota’s 3-2 overtime win against Minnesota in the NCAA West Regional final sent the Fighting Sioux to St. Louis, their third straight visit to the Frozen Four in Hakstol’s three years behind the bench.
Now Hakstol has his team in new territory, though you won’t catch him taking much of the credit for it. Discussing UND’s continued success Sunday evening, Hakstol ran off a litany of Fighting Sioux staff and supporters before returning to the players, without mentioning himself.
“I think that speaks to the history and tradition of this program,” Hakstol said. “The real secret is the guys in the locker room. They’re the ones who go out and play.”
Ryan Duncan, the WCHA Player of the Year, was a bit more voluble when discussing the UND coaching staff.
“You have to give a lot of credit to our coaches for helping us develop throughout the year and getting us ready at the right point, and helping us peak at the right point,” he said.
“That’s a bunch of guys who are playing for the crest on their jerseys, and that’s what it takes this time of year,” added Hakstol.
Fortunately for the Fighting Sioux, this time of year is when they seem to hit their peak. In the 2006-07 season, UND has gone 15-2-4 since Jan. 6, a pattern that has been consistent under Hakstol.
The Fighting Sioux went 9-2-0 in their last 11 games heading into the 2005 NCAA tournament, and had lost just one of their last nine games when the 2006 national tourney began.
This year might have been the most challenging, as the Fighting Sioux battled injuries en route to a sub-.500 first half. After winning three straight to start the season, UND went 5-10-1 starting in mid-October, including four straight losses to Wisconsin and Michigan Tech to end the pre-Christmas portion of their schedule.
“We had a rough first half, but we battled through adversity and it’s helping us now,” Duncan said.
A championship at the Ledyard Bank holiday tournament kick-started North Dakota’s run to the NCAAs, and one player who has been emblematic of the Sioux’s second-half surge is goaltender Philippe Lamoureux.
Entering the holiday break, the junior was a disappointing 4-8-0 with a sub-.900 save percentage, mirroring UND’s struggles. Since then, he’s been sterling, having started 24 straight games and losing just three of those.
Then came Saturday night’s game against Michigan, a pond-hockey exhibition whose scoresheet looked more like an NHL All-Star Game than an NCAA regional. A combined 12 goals were scored in the first 30 minutes of that game, with Lamoureux giving up five.
The Sioux rallied from an early deficit to win that game 8-5 and advance, but some goaltenders would have been rattled regardless. Not the apparently-unflappable junior from Grand Forks, N.D.
“The first part of the game yesterday, I couldn’t stop a beach ball,” quipped Lamoureux. “But it’s not about me and my personal success; it’s about the guys in the locker room … and I’m not about to quit on those guys.”
Fast-forward one day, and Lamoureux was plenty solid, stopping 27 Minnesota shots to give his team a chance, as Hakstol put it.
Just over a week ago, Minnesota edged North Dakota 3-2 in overtime in the WCHA championship game, and Sunday’s action was eerily evocative of that game in every way but the outcome.
Same teams, same score, different endings.
And with Sunday’s win, Hakstol is continuing the trajectory of his notable predecessors, after inheriting a North Dakota program that had played in seven NCAA tournament in Blais’ last eight years behind the bench, winning two national titles (1997, 2000) in the process. Likewise, Gasparini took the Fighting Sioux to three NCAA titles in a span of eight years.
Will this year’s version of the Fighting Sioux give Hakstol his first NCAA title and UND its eighth? Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, for one, wouldn’t be surprised.
“North Dakota’s a very good hockey team,” he said. “They’re going to be a dangerous team in the Frozen Four.”
Meanwhile, although UND gets another shot at revenge in a rematch of last year’s national semifinal with Boston College, for now the Fighting Sioux are focused inward.
“We came here with one goal in mind, and that was to get back to Grand Forks with the opportunity to prepare for St. Louis,” said Hakstol. “That’s where we’re at.”