Preview: North Dakota-Boston College

North Dakota vs. Boston College
Thursday, 4 p.m. MT, Pepsi Center, Denver

North Dakota Fighting Sioux
Record: 28-10-4, 18-7-3 WCHA (second)
Seed: No. 3 overall, No. 1 Midwest
Road to Frozen Four: Beat Princeton, 5-1; beat Wisconsin, 3-2 (ot)
2007 NCAA tournament: Lost in national semifinal

They’re ba-ack.

The Fighting Sioux have once again made it to the Frozen Four under coach Dave Hakstol, going a perfect four-for-four in his tenure.

T.J. Oshie leads North Dakota in scoring (photo: Tim Brule).

T.J. Oshie leads North Dakota in scoring (photo: Tim Brule).

Though it was expected the Sioux would be heading to Denver in April at the beginning of the season, a rocky start may have shaken some of the believers. However, the Sioux got back on track in the second half of the season, as they seemingly always do, and gutted out a tough, three-game series with Michigan Tech to make it to St. Paul, Minn., and the Red Baron WCHA Final Five.

At the Xcel Energy Center, North Dakota played Colorado College like most thought, except in the third-place game, not the championship. In a battle for a number-one seed, the Sioux prevailed, with their reward the Midwest Regional in Madison, Wis. — the only regional with more than one WCHA team.

The Sioux cruised past a Princeton team that was back in the national tournament for the first time in a decade, 5-1. The victory earned them a chance to face the Wisconsin Badgers, who beat up Denver, 6-2, perhaps to prove they earned their spot in the tournament. Still, the Sioux prevailed in the virtual road game against the Badgers, beating the boys in red in overtime, 3-2, thanks to one Andrew Kozek.

“Collectively as a group of 25 players, what a tremendous performance,” said Hakstol after the game. “To overcome all types of adversity through the first couple periods, as they have done all year, stuck together, believed in one another and found a way to get the job done.”

For the Sioux, getting the job done has meant relying on several different players to be the heroes and leaders. UND obviously has the known guys like T.J. Oshie (18-27–45), Ryan Duncan (18-22–40) and Jean-Philippe Lamoureux (1.64 GAA, .936 SV%), but the team also has other players who will step up as needed. One needs no further evidence than to look at the scoring sheet, where 14 of the 20 regular skaters are in double-digit point totals.

“All year, it’s been somebody different stepping up,” said Hakstol. “You can look at the game in Wisconsin against the Badgers. We needed that first goal in the worst way; our captain went out and got that first goal; Rylan Kaip scored that first goal and it really ignited us a little bit. That’s just an example of it, but you know what? For us, it’s been somebody different, night in and night out.”

Winning the Wisconsin game was just another step in Hakstol’s philosophy of taking the playoffs one game at a time, something he stressed once again leading up to college hockey’s showcase event.

“It’s a tournament you know by name, but it’s a series of one-shot games, so to speak,” he said. “You have to win to move on so right now, there’s not much on our minds except preparing for our next game Thursday.”

The game, of course, is against the Boston College Eagles — also known as the team which has ended the Sioux’s season in the same Thursday matinee the past two years.

Hakstol, however, isn’t letting that get in the way of his players, saying they’re well-prepared.

“We’re mentally prepared, we’re ready to go, we’re loose, we’re very focused. I guess you can approach it any way you want from the outside,” he said, alluding to the matchup.

“No question it’s the biggest game of the year, but once you get to the stretch run, once you get to the playoffs, your next game is always your biggest game of the year.

“This time of year, you just focus on the job at hand. You can say opportunity, you can say pressure; you can call it whatever you want, but at the end of the day, you just have to prepare yourself to play the game and that’s what it’s about.”

This year, the Sioux can only hope it means finally making it back to the title game for a chance at an eighth national championship.

Boston College Eagles
Record: 23-11-8, 11-9-7 Hockey East (fourth)
Seed: No. 6 overall, No. 2 Northeast
Road to Frozen Four: Beat Minnesota 5-2; beat Miami 4-3 (ot)
2007 NCAA tournament: NCAA runner-up

Thanks to Joe Whitney’s amazing goal, the Boston College Eagles have advanced to their eighth Frozen Four in the past 11 years. It’s the culmination of an up-and-down season, one hit hard by attrition and with tough stretches both in November and then again leading into the playoffs.

John Muse has been steadfast in net in his freshman season (photo: Melissa Wade).

John Muse has been steadfast in net in his freshman season (photo: Melissa Wade).

Although hardly bereft of talent, BC placed only one player on the All-Hockey East Team, a first since 1997. Yet the Eagles are still one game away from a third straight NCAA championship game.

“It’s probably not my best team that I’ve had a chance to coach as far as talent and [number of] all-league and All-American type guys,” BC coach Jerry York says, “but it clearly is my best team in the fact of how well they play together as a unit. Sometimes it’s not the best collection of players that wins the national title, but the team that plays the best at a certain time.”

Once again, the Eagles are doing that. They’ve won seven straight, including the Hockey East championship before defeating Minnesota and Miami in the Northeast Regional.

“I guess you can say that the team comes together at the right time,” team captain Mike Brennan says. “We like to pride ourselves at BC at peaking during playoff time and playing our best hockey in March and April.

“I think we’re as close as any team has ever been in the locker room and in practice, just enjoying each others company every step of the way. It’s easy to look ahead to the tournament, but you’ve really got to enjoy the process of getting there and we’ve been doing that.”

BC’s marquee player is, of course, Hobey Hat Trick finalist Nathan Gerbe, arguably college hockey’s most dynamic player. Whitney, Ben Smith and Benn Ferriero also topped 40 points, however, so the lineup is hardly lacking in scoring punch.

The defense suffered for a time from the loss of Brett Motherwell’s offensive prowess, but has come on strong. Behind them, freshman John Muse has been between the pipes for every minute.

With four straight trips to the Hockey East title game (winning three times) and two straight to the NCAA championship contest, the BC veterans couldn’t be much more battle-tested.

“About 95 percent of the team has been in the Frozen Four, so we understand the challenge ahead,” Brennan says. “We understand what it’s going to take to get to that national title game.”

Ironically, the freshmen playing in the NCAAs for the first time made some of the biggest contributions in the Northeast Regional. Without Muse’s heroics in the net and Whitney’s jaw-dropping goal, the Eagles would be pulling out the golf clubs. Defenseman Nick Petrecki earned All-Northeast Regional Team honors along with Gerbe and Whitney. Brian Gibbons centered the top line between Gerbe and Smith.

So don’t expect the Frozen Four newbies to leave all the heavy lifting to the upperclassmen. The Eagles will get contributions all the way down the roster.

They’ll need it against the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, no strangers to postseason battles themselves. BC will be taking them on for the third straight time in the Frozen Four semifinals and seventh time in the NCAAs over the last 10 years.

“It just seems that if we’re going to advance through the tournament, we’re going to have to go through the Sioux at some point,” York says.

Although Miami enjoyed success making it a battle along the walls while keeping BC out of a run-and-gun, transition game, York doesn’t expect a repeat against the Fighting Sioux.

“When we’ve played them, it’s been a high-octane game,” he says. “[Ryan] Duncan and [T.J.] Oshie get up and down the ice as well as anyone we’ve seen all year. The games have been electric in their intensity and quickness. I envision a really up-tempo type of game.”

Who wins that whirlwind battle will determine the view of BC’s season.

“College hockey has become what college basketball became 15 years ago, strictly a tournament sport,” York says. “You forget very quickly who won your league titles, who won your playoff championships. The mark of your club is how successful you are in the national tournament.”

On that verdict, the jury remains out.