Fighting Sioux head coach Dave Hakstol’s teams have earned a reputation as second-half squads. In Hakstol’s five years at UND, his winning percentage has been significantly better once the calendar turns to the new year. Why do the Sioux seem to surge in the second half? Are there other factors that contribute to early-season struggles? And what should we expect from this year’s North Dakota team down the stretch?
Before we get to this year’s team, let’s look back at the previous four years under Dave Hakstol. For simplicity’s sake, I used January 1st as the midway point for analysis. First, individually:
2004-05 Sioux: First half 13-7-2, Second half 12-8-3 (7-1-1 in March 2005)
2005-06 Sioux: First half 13-8-1, Second half 16-8-0 (8-1-0 in March 2006)
2006-07 Sioux: First half 9-10-1, Second half 15-4-4 (6-1-1 in March 2007)
2007-08 Sioux: First half 9-7-1, Second half 19-4-3 (7-2-2 in March 2008)
And combined 2004-08: First half 44-32-5 (.574), Second half 62-24-8 (.702), 28-5-4 (.811) in March
As you can see, the first two seasons do not necessarily fit the category of “second half surges”. It is interesting to note, however, that in both of those years, the record in the month of March was significantly better than the rest of the season.
The first season where the phrase “second half surge” became widely used was in 2006-07. Not only did the Sioux only lose four games from January until April, the team went on an 11 game unbeaten streak (8-0-3) in January and February. And last year’s North Dakota club went 18 games without a loss (15-0-3) in the second half, again collecting only four losses after New Year’s Day.
And this year’s squad:
2008-09 Sioux: First half 9-10-1, Second Half 12-1-3
The latest version of the second half surge produced an eight game unbeaten streak (6-0-2) in January and a current seven game unbeaten streak (6-0-1).
Each team has its own personality, makeup, and character, but there seems to be a common thread running through Dave Hakstol’s tenure at North Dakota: early season struggles and growing pains lead to consistency in the second half, culminating in an excellent winning percentage during tournament time.
What factors contribute to the early season struggles? For me, it boils down to a team’s identity. Included in that are several questions:
What type of team will each year’s roster become?
Who will handle the goaltending duties?
What types of injuries will they have to overcome?
With early departures, how long will it take the returning players to find and define roles?
Will the incoming freshman class contribute?
Who will handle the key special teams roles, and how long before those units find success?
I’m not suggesting that North Dakota is the only school that has to handle these issues each season; I’m simply bringing them up in an attempt to illustrate that coaching is not an exact science. There is no “magic button”, it’s a process. Early on, I heard Hakstol comment many times that despite the losses, he liked this team and believed that they were very close to playing up to their capabilities.
The biggest factors for this season’s early struggles were goaltending and injuries.
The rotation of Eidsness and Walski did not work out very well. Before Eidsness became the full-time starter on November 15th, UND was 4-6-0. Since then, the Fighting Sioux are 14-5-3. In 23 games as the number-one goaltender, the freshman Eidsness has allowed more than three goals just once, a 7-4 home victory against St. Cloud State.
The biggest injury in the first half was to senior defenseman Joe Finley. Finley was injured on October 11th and did not return to the lineup until December 27th. His injury necessitated fellow defensemen Chay Genoway and Zach Jones to play through injuries in first half and forced freshmen Ben Blood and Corey Fienhage into the lineup. It’s interesting to note that while Finley was out of the lineup, UND allowed 2.94 goals per game. Since his return, that number has dropped to 2.28.
That decline is not all related to Joe Finley; UND’s defense and goaltending have been better overall in the second half. But Finley’s return allows the other defensemen to play their roles and reunites Finley with Chay Genoway, a very successful defensive pairing from last season.
Derrick LaPoint’s season-ending injury throws a wrench into the defensive corps for the remainder of this year. Senior defenseman Zach Jones has been out for a few weeks with an unspecified injury, and if he is unable to go, freshman Corey Fienhage would step into the lineup. Fellow freshman Ben Blood has appeared in 20 games this season and has elevated his game in the second half.
The rest of this discussion is up to you. Is there truth to the second half surge? Is it math or myth? And what do you expect from this year’s team the rest of the way? Leave your comments and let me know what you think.
Thank you for reading. I welcome your comments and suggestions.