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Another year, another surge

The UND men's hockey team left campus for Christmas break with its worst record in five years but not a shred of doubt whether it would turn things around.

The UND men's hockey team left campus for Christmas break with its worst record in five years but not a shred of doubt whether it would turn things around.

"None ever crept into my mind," coach Dave Hakstol said. "If you allow it to creep into your mind, you're defeated already. This was a pretty determined group as we broke for Christmas. We were determined to come back and do everything in our power to climb out of the hole we dug."

It was a deep hole.

The Sioux were 7-10-1 under .500 for the first time since the 2001-02 season. They were in the bottom half of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings and falling. They had won just one of their last eight games.

But for the third time in his three years as head coach, Hakstol has led UND on a second-half charge. This season's success is arguably more unexpected and more impressive than the two previous runs.


UND is 14-2-4 since the break, losing just a pair of one-goal games in the Rocky Mountains. The Sioux didn't lose at home in the second half after getting swept three times in Ralph Engelstad Arena before Christmas. And they've improved in nearly every category offense, defense, special teams and goaltending.

"No one in the locker room was doubting our abilities, doubting our talent or doubting what we could do," Sioux assistant captain Erik Fabian said. "We knew that if we kept working and kept being positive, we would be able to turn it around. It was very difficult at times to stay positive and find the silver lining, but we were able to do it.

"We didn't have negative thoughts and people saying 'We're not going to do this.' It starts with the coaches. They never gave up on us. And it goes right on down to every player on the team. Nobody gave up."

Origin of the run

When the Sioux came back from Christmas, they found themselves without three of their top players. Jonathan Toews, Taylor Chorney and Brian Lee were in Sweden playing at the World Junior Championship.

Still, UND went out to the Dartmouth tournament and beat the host school in the semifinals and topped St. Lawrence in the championship. The next weekend, still without the trio of high draft picks, UND played well against Colorado College and earned a split.

"The first practice when I came back (from the World Juniors), I could tell something changed on the ice," Chorney said. "Everyone was more focused. There was a commitment to get better every day. There was a lot of attention to detail and everything looked a lot more crisp. It looked like everyone had been playing together a lot longer than they had been and I guess we took it from there."

Toews added: "Dunc (Ryan Duncan) told me that I would be able to feel a different sense when I got back. We were having more fun and enjoying the game for what it is. I tried to be a part of it and add to it to a certain extent."



UND averaged a mediocre 3 goals per game before Christmas, but wound up being the most prolific offense in league games.

The high-powered combination of Duncan, Toews and T.J. Oshie never got going in the first half. Oshie was playing with a broken thumb and Toews missed a few games with a shoulder injury.

The trio, which only played together on the top line for seven of the first 18 games, had 47 points and a minus-2 rating. Since, they've been labeled the top line in college hockey by several opposing coaches, tallying 86 points and racking up a plus-46 rating.

Just as important have been the contributions from checking-line players such as Fabian, Rylan Kaip, Chris VandeVelde and Darcy Zajac. Those four players combined for four goals in the first half of the season and 14 since.

"I feel like through the first three-quarters of the season, we were labeled a one-line team up front," Hakstol said. "That's just not the case. Everybody is so important. To have those guys contribute offensively as well as physically, it is as critical as any part of the team."


During Christmas break, Hakstol challenged his team to hold opponents to one fewer goal per game.


The Sioux have done more than that. After allowing an average of 3.17 goals per game in the first half, the Sioux have turned that around to a mark of 2.05 in the second half.

"I think a lot of us defensemen have stepped forward," Chorney said. "Joe Finley has really stepped up as a solid defenseman for us. And (goaltender) Phil (Lamoureux) gives us so much confidence. As a defenseman, your mistakes get blown up when goals are being scored. But Phil has been back there for us. It gives us more confidence to do what we want."

Lamoureux missed several games in October and November with an ankle sprain. When he returned, he wasn't at 100 percent and it showed. His first-half save percentage was .886.

In the second half, Lamoureux has started 20 consecutive games in net the most by a Sioux goalie in 33 years and he's posted a .928 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average.

Special teams

UND's power play was consistent in the first half, scoring at a 21.4 percent rate. That number has went up to 22.2 percent in the second half. But the largest turnaround has been in the penalty kill.

First-year assistant coach Dane Jackson instituted a new system at the beginning of the year and it took the team a while to adapt. UND killed just 78.1 percent of opponent power plays before Christmas, but has successfully killed 86.3 percent since.

"Guys are comfortable in the new system now," Hakstol said. "There is no thought process anymore. Guys are just reacting. You don't have time to think on the penalty kill. You just have to work extremely hard, work together and be very reactionary. Certainly, there was a transition with the new system."


Another run

This late-season run is nothing new for the Sioux under Hakstol.

As a rookie head coach, UND went 9-1-2 down the stretch to reach the national championship game. Last season, the Sioux went 11-2 down the stretch and surged to the Frozen Four for the second straight season.

Each year, Hakstol's teams have faced new challenges, which led to early-season struggles.

His first team had to adapt to the coaching change. Last season's team had to adapt to the loss of nine seniors and the addition of 13 freshmen. This season, the Sioux lost five underclassmen to the professional ranks, leaving almost every player with a larger role.

"I don't think anybody in our locker room is looking over the last couple of months and saying the job is done," Hakstol said. "All we've talked about is putting ourselves in position to have success. That's where we are right now. We're in position.

"What we do from here, that's what counts."

Reach Schlossman at 780-1129, (800) 477-6572 ext. 129 or bschlossman@gfherald.com .

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