Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Know Your Enemy: North Dakota

Well. This wasn't on the schedule at the beginning of the year. Must have missed this one.

Actually, it technically was, since we always put the schedule out to include the entire NCAA tournament (you know, just in case), but at any rate, it's time to take a close look at the opponents for Saturday's contest in Green Bay. There's no such thing as an easy opponent this time of year, but the first test for the Engineers is a tall one indeed - the #1 team in the nation, if not in the tournament.

North Dakota
Nickname: Fighting Sioux
Location: Grand Forks, ND
Founded: 1883
Conference: WCHA
National Championships: 7 (1959, 1963, 1980, 1982, 1987, 1997, 2000)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2010
Last Frozen Four: 2008
Coach: Dave Hakstol (7th season)
2010-11 Record: 30-8-3 (21-6-1 WCHA, 1st place)
Series: North Dakota leads, 7-1-0
First Game: January 2, 1960 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: November 24, 1984 (Grand Forks, ND)
Last UND win: January 13, 1990 (Grand Forks, ND)

2010-11 game: March 26, 2011 (Green Bay, WI)
Key players: D Derek Forbort, fr. (0-15--15), F Matt Frattin, sr. (35-22--57), D Chay Genoway, sr. (6-26--32), F Jason Gregoire, jr. (24-17--41), F Corban Knight, so. (13-29--42), F Brad Malone, sr. (16-21--37), F Evan Trupp, sr. (16-21--37), G Aaron Dell (28-6-2, 1.87, .921)

The names are what stand out in UND's hockey history - names like Ed Belfour, Craig Ludwig, Troy Murray, David Christian, and Tony Hrkac. Today's NHL ranks are littered with former Sioux - Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie... the list goes on.

Hockey has been synonymous with North Dakota since the end of World War II, when the school hired student John Jamieson as the team's first hockey coach in 1946. It didn't take long for UND to establish itself as a worthy hockey power, taking down a Michigan team that was just a month away from becoming the first NCAA champion by a 6-5 score in Ann Arbor in 1948.

The upward trend continued into the 1950s, where the school was one of the founding members of the WIHL, the forerunner of the WCHA. They reached their first Frozen Four in 1958, blasting Harvard 9-1 in the semifinal before falling to Denver, but the next season the Sioux broke through, claiming their first national championship in the 1959 Frozen Four at RPI Field House, where they won a pair of heart-stopping 4-3 overtime games over St. Lawrence and Michigan State.

Head coach Barry Thorndycraft was behind the bench in Troy, and he would earn a second national championship in 1963. That was the last national crown the Sioux earned for nearly 20 years, but the team stayed competitive through the 1960s.

One thing RPI and North Dakota have in common are ruinous tenures by UND alum Rube Bjorkman. He spent one year at RPI in 1964, leading the Engineers to the Frozen Four that season but nearly causing the program to die when he left for New Hampshire. Bjorkman had moderate success in Durham, but while at his alma mater, the team entered a 10-year period of mediocrity.

That period ended as soon as Bjorkman stepped down in early 1978. His repalcement, Gino Gasparini, returned the team to the Frozen Four in 1979, his first season behind the bench. Under Gasparini, the Sioux returned to prominence, winning three national championships during his tenure from 1978 to 1994. That stretch included a much-remembered pair of upsets (at RPI, anyway) in Troy in the NCAA tournament, as the Sioux twice defeated an RPI team that entered the tournament with a record of 32-4 as one of the favorites for the national championship.

The Fighting Sioux are arguably in the midst of their greatest sustained success in the history of their program. Since the 1996-97 season, they have scored seven MacNaughton Cups as WCHA regular season champions, five Broadmoor Trophies as WCHA tournament champs, and have only missed 20 wins and the NCAA tournament once (2001-02, their first season in the college hockey cathedral known as Ralph Englestad Arena). During that stretch, they have reached the Frozen Four seven times, winning two national championships in 1997 and 2000.

North Dakota has completed the WCHA sweep (regular season and playoffs) three times. The first two times, in 1987 and 1997, they won the national championship. 2011 is the third.

This team has all kinds of experienced offense, led by Hobey Baker Award favorite Matt Frattin, Evan Trupp, and Corban Knight, and their defense is keyed by Aaron Dell, who was the backup to Brad Eidsness heading into the season. Dell has been superb all season long, however, being named the WCHA's goaltender of the year. The team is deep enough to roll with four dangerous lines that will burn you if you take a shift off. That's a key reason why they come into the NCAA tournament with a 13-game unbeaten streak (12-0-1).

What does RPI have going for them? Well, they didn't just emerge from the all-out war that is the WCHA tournament. They will have had almost three weeks for their minor bumps and bruises to heal - and in recent years, teams that have had a couple of weeks off before their NCAA tournament have found success, usually quite unexpected (that would seem to bode well for Nebraska-Omaha and Union, too). They've shown resiliency this season as well against top teams, including a victory over then-#1 Yale (who boasts the only goaltender with better numbers than Dell this year). Of course, the Engineers also have a Hobey Baker candidate of their own and a goaltender who has been known to keep his team in practically every game he's played this season.

Let there be no doubt as to which team in this matchup has the pressure on them. Anything short of the national championship for North Dakota, especially given their dismissive demeanors after winning the MacNaughton and the Broadmoor, will be a failure. The Engineers, while they surely are going to go for the win, are merely happy to still be playing. That alone, or even combined with the elements above, isn't going to suddenly make RPI favorites, but there's something to be said for the freedom that comes with using house money.

We'll see what happens on Saturday. North Dakota are the favorites and rightfully so, but there's no reason not to go into this game without hope. If RPI goes for broke and Allen York has a strong game, anything's possible.

3 comments:

  1. I don't think our boys in green are taking RPI lightly. Should be a good weekend with lots of Sioux fans in attendance. GO Sioux

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  2. "Anything short of the national championship for North Dakota, especially given their dismissive demeanors after winning the MacNaughton and the Broadmoor, will be a failure."

    I guess I am not sure how some would call it dismissive for not touching the trophy? By running around and parading with the cup the Sioux after winning in 2009 lost both games in the Conference tourney and lost to UNH as well. I think the guys see the trophy as just another step towards winning the NCAA title.

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  3. One does not follow on from the other. They did not lose in the conference tournament because they dared to touch the MacNaughton Cup, which is the most difficult trophy in all of college hockey to win. If your mindset is changed by whether you take time to celebrate step victories or not, that's a pretty weak mindset to begin with.

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