Maybe it’s a stretch to call any team a surprise in St. Louis. None of the No. 1 seeds escaped the NCAA regionals, but three of the four-team field played last year in Milwaukee — including the second-year survivor of the West Regional, North Dakota.
But this year’s UND team is very different from last year’s Fighting Sioux, the squad that featured sophomores Rastislav Spirko and Travis Zajac, and junior Drew Stafford: a trio responsible for 53 of the team’s 104 total goals in the 2005-06 campaign.
Spirko, Zajac, and Stafford opted to leave for more lucrative pastures after the Sioux bowed out of the 2006 Frozen Four with a 6-5 loss to Boston College, as did junior defenseman Matt Smaby and his classmate, goaltender Jordan Parise.
So maybe — just maybe — North Dakota’s second consecutive trip to the Frozen Four is a little unexpected, but don’t use the S-word around UND senior captain Chris Porter.
“I’m not really surprised to be here, no, not with the team we have,” said Porter after the Sioux’s practice Wednesday. “I guess people have doubted us all along, but we’ve proved them wrong so far.”
In December, UND carried a 7-10-1 record into the Ledyard Bank Tournament in New Hampshire, which the Sioux won by beating Dartmouth 4-1 and St. Lawrence 4-2. After the holiday tournament, North Dakota went 11-2-4 to finish the regular season.
“We didn’t have the greatest start to our hockey season that we wanted,” said Porter. “After Christmas, we really came together as a group, and from that point on we just approached it one game at a time, and it was kind of a do-or-die situation for us within our league and making the national tournament.
“So we’ve been in situations where it didn’t matter who we were playing; we just focused on that one game, taking it day by day. I think that’s gotten us where we are now.”
Head coach Dave Hakstol said that while the Sioux had their “ups and downs,” there was “no one turning point” to UND’s season.
“This is an extremely talented group of young men, but more importantly, it’s a lunchpail group,” said Hakstol. “This group of guys shows up, and their best characteristic is work ethic. We’ve had that all the way through. When it comes to the end of the year, that is maybe the most important characteristic that the team needs to have in order to be successful.”
And from the first day of practice for the Sioux in the 2006-07 season, the main criterion for success was a return trip to the Frozen Four.
“This year, we talked about our goals in September,” said Hakstol. “After that, it’s not something that we talk about day by day. We know exactly where we want to get to by the end of the year. From that point in time, as a staff, as a group of players, it’s our job to focus on what we have to do to get better week by week.
“You can’t take a leap from September — where your starting point is, regardless what level that is at — you can’t take a leap from September right to this point in the season. You have to take short-term steps, short-term goals, and make progress throughout the year in order to have an opportunity to be at this point.”
One key factor to the Sioux’s return to the Frozen Four was the maturation of their sophomores. A dozen sophomores grace the UND roster, players who had been asked to shoulder much of North Dakota’s workload in the absence of Spirko, Zajac and Stafford.
“I think they’ve done a tremendous job this year,” said Porter. “Obviously, Ryan’s line has done a great job. They’ve led us offensively and picked us up when we’ve needed it.”
Ryan is Hobey Baker finalist Ryan Duncan (31-26–57), who spent his time this season on the ice with fellow sophomores T.J. Oshie (16-33–49) and Jonathan Toews (17-28–45). The sophomore class had, in total, netted 99 of UND’s 149 goals going into today’s semifinal match against Boston College.
The six-man freshman class had also been asked to contribute to this young team’s success. While seven of the team’s top 10 scorers were sophomores, a trio of newcomers — Chay Genoway, Chris VandeVelde and Darcy Zajac, Travis’ younger brother — chipped in 16 tallies.
“I think as a team, as a whole, we’ve welcomed everybody with open arms,” said Porter. “The freshmen have stepped in and played a huge role. With the new NHL, guys are leaving early; young guys are asked to play a bigger role, and they’ve done a great job this year, and we’re really proud of them.”
Porter said that this year’s squad is significantly different from its predecessor in attitude as well.
“I think [with] last year’s team there was a sort-of satisfaction coming into … last year’s Frozen Four. We have a group this year, we’ve worked so hard to get to this point, there’s no point in coming here and playing with a half-hearted effort. Last year was last year. We put that aside and I know our team’s really excited to be here. There are a lot of guys in the locker room that are chomping at the bit to get going.
“I’m not making excuses for our team last year, but, yeah, it was just a different feeling and I feel this year that the team is ready and prepared for anything.”
That may make the 6-4 semifinal loss to BC that much harder to swallow for North Dakota this year, but it won’t change how Hakstol and the Sioux see their storied program. With seven national championship, 17 Frozen Four appearances, and 22 trips total to the NCAA tournament, the goal at the start of every season is absolutely no surprise.
“Each and every year, each team is different, each year is going to be a different type of year,” said Hakstol. “Within our program, it is our goal not only to be here each year; it’s our goal to win games here at the Frozen Four.”