When the puck dropped for North Dakota and Princeton in the first game of the Midwest Regional Saturday afternoon, there may have been lingering questions about the Fighting Sioux’s readiness for the NCAA tournament.
Since looking invulnerable while going 15-0-3 from early January through mid-March, UND had appeared merely mortal, needing three games to dispose of ninth-place Michigan Tech in the first round of the WCHA playoffs and then losing to lower-seeded Denver in the semifinals of the Final Five in St. Paul, Minn.
True, the Fighting Sioux salvaged a No. 1 NCAA seed with a third-place win over Colorado College, but that wasn’t as reassuring as it might have been given CC’s modest record away from home and its loss to Minnesota one day earlier.
So Saturday’s contest against the ECAC Hockey tournament champions could have been termed a “trap” game — a concept usually applied to a contest against an innocuous opponent that is sandwiched between two games against tough foes or bitter rivals.
It’s an easy game for the favorites to lose if they’re not paying attention.
The Sioux-Tigers matchup fit that description for UND. Despite a fine season, Princeton was given little chance by the pundits to keep up with North Dakota.
Since an all-WCHA matchup loomed in the regional final should the Sioux advance — and one potential opponent was those selfsame Pioneers — head coach Dave Hakstol and company could easily have been caught looking past Princeton.
Instead, by the time the contest ended, the major topic of discussion was, “How the heck did the Tigers outshoot the Sioux two-to-one and lose by four goals?” And after the Fighting Sioux moved on with a 5-1 win, UND head coach Dave Hakstol went out of his way to counter the possibility that UND had ever looked ahead at all.
“It’s pretty evident what type of hockey team [Princeton] is,” he said. “They played from the drop of the puck, they played 60 minutes and it took everything we had to get through and past this game. … We found a way to win and advance, and that’s what it’s all about.
“Anyone who watched the game should know how good of a team Princeton is,” he added.
Hakstol’s team was handily outshot, and Princeton showed no fear of the Fighting Sioux’s offensive weaponry, including Hobey Baker finalist T.J. Oshie and last year’s winner of the award, Ryan Duncan.
The Tigers instead chose to play an up-and-down game and generated plenty of chances as a result, but Duncan singlehandedly outgunned Princeton. After suffering through a drought that had seen him score just one goal in his previous 10 games, Duncan exploded for three. That included critical tallies late in the second and early in the third period to put the contest away.
“I’ve just been trying to contribute as much as I can throughout the year,” said Duncan. “Obviously the offensive stats haven’t been there compared to last year, but I’m just trying to do everything I can.”
“What else can you say?” asked goaltender Jean-Philippe Lamoureux rhetorically. “He showed why he’s a Hobey Baker winner.”
Despite the big shot advantage and several opportunities for Princeton early on, there was never a sense of danger for the Fighting Sioux. They scored five goals in a row, and Princeton didn’t get on the board until late in regulation.
That’s because UND’s other 2008 Hobey finalist, Lamoureux, was as good as could have been asked, holding the fort against a determined Tiger offense. The fact that the Tigers outshot the Sioux 39-18 raised eyebrows and some concerns, but Hakstol was focused on the outcome.
“I don’t count the shots one way or the other,” he said. “We’ve had some games this year where we’ve outshot teams two-to-one and lost, and we’ve had games like this.”
Hakstol had expected no less from Princeton, based on his comments Friday before ever taking the ice against the Tigers, who led ECAC Hockey in scoring offense this season.
“I knew even before I saw them that I felt I’d know the type of team they’d be,” he said then, identifying Princeton as a talented offensive, good-skating team. “Knowing Guy Gadowsky and his history and track record and the job that he’s done in the various places he’s been.”
With its win, North Dakota guaranteed the WCHA — which lost two games Friday as St. Cloud State and Colorado College bowed out of the tournament — an entrant in the Frozen Four. Which one it will be remains to be seen.