It’s way too early for the panic button in Grand Forks

Dave Hakstol said it best when he stated the morning before the season opener, that North Dakota “isn’t a top-2 team in the WCHA right now,” Hakstol said.

“…right now.”

The UND coach made that statement before the Sioux had to rally to beat Air Force, Friday, and before it fell hard to No. 5 Boston College, Saturday. Hakstol’s right. Right now, UND is not the second-best team in the league, but that’s where the WCHA Preseason Coaches Poll predicted the Sioux to finish.

The second part of Hakstol’s quote: ”We have a lot of work to do to get to that level but we will get there.”

And there’s no question the Sioux could get there. Hakstol is not a prophet, but he knows how his team traditionally progresses as the season moves along.

UND has had slow starts during Hakstol’s seven seasons behind the Sioux bench –  Last year’s  4-3-1 October was slow by UND standards  - but his team always turns up the voltage after the turn of the year. The Sioux has gone 111-40-16 from January on since Hakstol took over for Dean Blais in 2004.

Saturday’s  6-2 loss to BC on home ice made it official that UND won’t be going undefeated this season, and it seemed a handful of Sioux fans didn’t see that one coming, just judging by some of the comments on the chief in-game message board in Sioux Nation.

Much of the discussion included where to place blame for such a catastrophic defeat, UND’s current state of “mediocrity” and disappointing finishes in the NCAA Tournament.  Hakstol  took the blunt of it.

Blais is the only current WCHA coach with a better career winning percentage than Hakstol (.652) and Don Lucia is the only WCHA coach with a better winning percentage in his first seven seasons with his current team (.671) than Hakstol.

What separates coaches like Blais, Lucia, Mike Eaves and George Gwozdecky is that those guys have national championship rings earned as head coaches. Scott Sandelin suffered six losing seasons and four WCHA finishes in eighth place or lower before he won his national title.

Hakstol has been to five Frozen Fours and coached the Sioux to the 2005 title game in his first season.

Dave Hakstol is not the reason UND hasn’t won a championship since 2000 but he, along with all the talent he recruited, is why the Sioux reached the Frozen Fours more than any team in the WCHA over the past seven years.

The 2010-11 North Dakota squad might’ve been the best team to play for Hakstol and it was a major letdown when the top-ranked Sioux lost to Michigan, 2-0, in the national semis.

Hakstol had his team on a mission in the postseason and the Sioux dominated the Wolverines that night, outshooting Michigan 40-20. Hakstol did not choke. The 2011 title was UND’s to win but the Sioux ran into a hot goalie, Shaun Hunwick, who made 40 saves to shut the Sioux down.

And six months later, the Sioux roster is void of the guys who scored 128 of the 177 UND goals last season and the team is young.  Nebraska-Omaha is the only WCHA team to play more freshmen (8 ) in its first two games than UND – the Sioux has played seven –  and only Wisconsin has less seniors on its roster (2) than UND, which has three.

Yes, BC caught the Sioux defense flat-footed on many occasions Saturday and Aaron Dell allowed a couple soft goals, but give it time. This isn’t the 2010-11 Sioux team, it’s a roster full of youth but promise. UND will experience growing pains and it’s going to take some time to get up to Sioux standards.

The 1-1 record is nothing for third-ranked UND or its fans to worry about. No. 1 Notre Dame opened with a loss to Minnesota-Duluth and No. 2 Miami lost at home to Bemidji State in its opener, so don’t look up. The sky is not falling in Grand Forks.

Brian Halverson joined our columnist staff this season and he breaks down Minnesota-Duluth’s new top line and Bemidji State’s split at No. 2 Miami

Connolly could do damage with new linemates

One of the questions facing Minnesota-Duluth as it prepared to begin its defense of the national championship was who would fill the vacancies left by Justin Fontaine and Mike Connolly on the Bulldogs’ top line alongside Jack Connolly.

That trio combined to lead the nation in scoring among Division I forward lines with 68 goals and 171 points. But when Fontaine and Connolly made the leap to professional hockey they took 50 goals and 112 points with them.

“It’s difficult when you lose the scoring that we did,” said Sandelin in UMD’s USCHO season preview. “We’ve got to look to some guys to step up and there’s still some question marks as to who those people are going to be.”

Sandelin received a preliminary answer in UMD’s weekend split with No. 1 ranked Notre Dame when junior Mike Seidel and sophomore J.T. Brown saddled up next to Connolly and displayed immediate chemistry.

Seidel, who entered the series with 13 goals to his credit over two seasons at UMD, scored three times against the Irish and Brown added one as the three combined to net four of the Bulldogs’ seven goals and eight points overall in the two games.

Connolly, the team’s leading scorer last season as a junior (18-41–59), was the line’s low man with ‘only’ two assists.

The Bulldogs host Minnesota this coming weekend and, despite back-to-back shutouts, the Gophers’ young defensemen – junior Seth Helgeson is the lone upperclassman – were not exactly tested in their season-opening series against Sacred Heart.

After what they produced against what was the nation’s No. 1 team, it appears Brown and Seidel are primed to step up and be part of UMD’s top scoring line, along with Connolly. Minnesota’s inexperienced defenders are the next test.


Don’t sleep on Bemidji State

Bemidji State was picked in the preseason coaches poll to land 10th in the WCHA standings this season and we pretty much agreed (Tyler 9th, Brian 10th). But the Beavers gave notice in their season-opening series at No. 2 Miami that they are not interested in conceding that many spots in the standings.

Bemidji State traveled to Ohio last weekend and returned home with an impressive, hard-earned split with the Redhawks. After beating Miami 5-3 Friday, the Beavers and Redhawks were tied 2-2 late in the third until Matt Tomassoni’s second goal of the game with just 4:55 to play allowed Miami to escape with a split.

The prevailing opinion coming into the season was that goaltender Dan Bakala and forward Jordan George were, more often than not, going to have to be the catalysts for any Bemidji State successes. While that’s probably still true to some degree, it was not the case against Miami.

Bakala was still called upon the make the big saves when needed last weekend, just not nearly as often as he is accustomed. Bemidji State limited Miami to 46 shots in the two games, well below last season’s opponent average of 30.2 shots per game.

While George did score one of Bemidji State’s two goals in Saturday’s loss, the Beavers got three points each from junior forward Aaron McLeod (2-1—3) and senior defenseman Brad Hunt (0-3—3) in the series.

Although there is some sentiment out there that Miami was not worthy of its No. 2 ranking – and certainly will not maintain it–the fact remains that the Beavers split with, and were in position to sweep, a highly-ranked, NCAA tournament caliber team on the road.