Ok, so it’s really past midseason, but with the bye week upon us and the stretch run ahead of us, I thought I’d take a look at how North Dakota’s season has gone so far and spend some time discussing what to watch for the rest of the way.
It was an inconsistent first half for the Fighting Sioux, as North Dakota went 5-8-1 in October and November. UND did not find consistent goaltending until mid-November, and injuries to Chay Genoway and Joe Finley depleted the defensive corps and forced freshmen defenseman Ben Blood and Corey Feinhage into action.
North Dakota’s loss and tie at Minnesota-Duluth in November may prove costly come tournament time, as both teams are squarely on the bubble for the NCAAs. At the moment, the Bulldogs win the comparison against UND, largely due to the results of that series. The two teams will not meet again in the regular season.
The Great Lakes Invitational was the only hiccup in an otherwise stellar December and January. UND lost to Michigan State and Michigan Tech by identical 2-1 scores. Had one or both of those games ended up as North Dakota victories, the Fighting Sioux would not be in the precarious post-season position they currently find themselves in.
As I mentioned above, the Fighting Sioux have come on strong in the last two months, posting a record of 11-3-2 and vaulting to second place in the league standings. After notching only two goals in two games at the Great Lakes Invitational, UND averaged 4.2 goals per game in January and went 7-1-2.
Freshman goaltender Brad Eidsness has been the most important part of North Dakota’s second half surge. Since taking over the starting job midway through a November 14th game against Alaska-Anchorage, the rookie netminder has posted a 13-5-3 record with a goals-against average of 2.22 and a save percentage of .917. During that stretch, Eidsness has allowed more than three goals just once, a 7-4 home victory against St. Cloud State.
Another key component for UND’s success has been balanced scoring. Opponents cannot simply key on one line to stop North Dakota’s offensive output, as twelve Fighting Sioux players are averaging more than a point per weekend. Ryan Martens (10 goals, 9 assists) and Brad Miller (4 goals, 19 assists) are having outstanding senior campaigns, while sophomore forward Matt Frattin is tied for the team lead with twelve goals after netting only four all of last season (in 43 games).
Freshmen forwards David Toews (5-6-11), Brett Hextall (8-8-16), and Jason Gregoire (10-10-20) have all stepped in and contributed right away. Hextall and Gregoire, in particular, have been outstanding while paired with senior center Ryan Duncan.
North Dakota’s home sweep of Minnesota was another highlight of the season so far. In drubbing the visiting Gophers 6-3 and 6-1, the Fighting Sioux demonstrated that they could play a full 120 minutes of hockey against any team in the country.
What To Watch For:
The race for the McNaughton Cup is the first item of interest for this year’s team. North Dakota currently sits all alone in second place in the league standings, one point behind Denver and one point ahead of third-place Wisconsin. The Fighting Sioux will travel to Wisconsin for the final weekend of the regular season in a series that might well determine the conference champion.
UND is in good shape for home ice in the first round of the playoffs, but anything can happen over the final month of the season. MSU-Mankato, for example, is currently in seventh place in the WCHA but could pull to within one point of North Dakota with a sweep next weekend in Grand Forks.
North Dakota is squarely on the bubble for the NCAA tournament, and with the potential of 10-14 games remaining before the field of 16 is announced, will have to win at least 75% of those games or win the WCHA Final Five to advance to the national tournament. With difficult road trips remaining to Anchorage and Wisconsin, UND will need to continue its stellar home ice play (9-3-1 at Ralph Engelstad Arena this season) against MSU-Mankato and Colorado College, two teams the Sioux split with earlier this season.
Across the league, Denver and Minnesota appear to be locks for the NCAA tournament, while Wisconsin, Minnesota-Duluth, Colorado College, St. Cloud State, and North Dakota all have a chance of receiving an at-large bid. I expect the WCHA to field three or four teams in this year’s tournament.
It’s amazing to think that UND is in position to claim the McNaughton Cup as league champion but could still miss the NCAA tournament. A medicore non-conference record of 5-5-0 has put North Dakota in this position, but there are still plenty of games left to be played.
Thank you for reading. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.