Coming into the tournament, it was kind of a toss-up for the team that everyone wanted to avoid: BC or North Dakota. The Eagles were knocked out in the first round, but no such luck with the Sioux. They dispatched RPI 6-0 in the lone opening-weekend game that I didn't watch a significant part of. They then beat Denver 6-1 to make it to the Frozen Four.
Here are 10 things to know about North Dakota:
1) They come into this weekend 32-8-3 on the year and a perfect 5-0-0 at neutral sites. They won the WCHA by 6 points and beat Denver in double overtime to take home the WCHA Tournament Championship. Somehow Yale, the second-place team in the EZAC, was the #1 overall seed. This is a perfect example of why the Pairwise is stupid.
2) The Sioux have only lost three games since Thanksgiving and have gone 14-0-1 since January 28th, outscoring their opponents 78-20 over that 15-game stretch. In that time period, they didn't score fewer than three goals in a game and only gave up as many as three on two occasions. That's the bad news.
The good news is that they weren't exactly facing Murderer's Row in that stretch. They had four wins against Denver and CC, but the other 11 games were been Anchorage (2), St Cloud (2), Bemidji (2), Tech (4), and RPI. There were 4 games decided by a single goal (or two with an ENG) and one tie. 3 of their last 5 have been decided by one goal (or two with an ENG). Still, going 15 games without losing and beating your opponent by an average of 5.2-1.33 (repeating of course) is impressive no matter who you're playing.
3) They're led by Hobey-Finalist Matt Frattin, who has had a career year in the actual sense of the word. After posting a 28-31--59 line through the first three years of his career, Frattin has put up 36-24--60 this season. He has a 15-game point streak, which not coincidentally coincides with the 15-game unbeaten streak that the Sioux are currently on. He has averaged almost 2 points-per-game over that span, granted 12 of the 29 were in the four games against Tech. He had a 9-game goal streak snapped against Denver in the Midwest Regional Final.
4) It's not just him, however. The Sioux have four other players with 40+ points on the year. Corbin Knight has 14-30--44. Jason Gregoire has 25 goals and 43 points (in 34 games). Evan Trupp and Brad Malone have also each cracked the 40-point barrier. Malone, in particular, has filled up the stat sheet. He has 5 game-winners, six on the power play, and has 108 penalty minutes for good measure.
Then beyond that you've got a 37-point scorer (defenseman Chay Genoway) and three more forwards with more than 20 points. It's going to be a hold-your-breath type game.
Michigan and North Dakota are pretty even in terms of points from defensemen. The Sioux have gotten 111 points from their blueliners. Michigan has 108.
5) They don't give up much at the other end of the ice either. After Brad Eidsness started 82 games the last two seasons, he only played 7 this year because sophomore Aaron Dell has taken the job. Dell was the First Team WCHA Goalie. He had a record of 30-6-2 with a 1.81 and a .924. He's tops in the country in goals-against average and eighth in save percentage.
6) The special teams? Also very good. The power play is seventh in the nation at 23.3%. They have given up 7 SHGs, though. They're 5th on the PK at 86.0% and have scored 11 while down a man. Overall, they're +28 on the specialty teams. Frattin has 10 with the man-advantage, and they've got four guys with at least 6.
7) They have the #2 offense and the #3 defense in the country. That ranks them second in scoring margin (+2.00 goals per game) behind only Yale, which doesn't really count since we all know the ECAC sucks.
8) The recent tournament history between these teams hasn't gone in our favor. North Dakota knocked the Wolverines out in the first round of the 06 and 07 tournaments. The 2006 game was kind of a given, though it was hard to be upset after Minnesota got beat by Holy Cross earlier in the day. The 2007 game was that strange, strange game where we scored 5 goals in the first 21 minutes of the game, and still found ourselves trailing by 2 midway through the second period because, well, Billy Sauer and our PK.....
9) Genoway leads the team with 8 points in 6 NCAA Tournament games. Frattin has 2-5--7. Malone has 4 goals to lead the team. Dell's two starts this year have been his only action in tournament games. For Michigan, Hagelin leads the team with 3-2--5 in 8 games. Kevin Lynch has 2-1--3 in four games. Chad Langlais has 4 points and is +7 back on the blue line. In net, Shawn Hunwick is 3-1-0 with a 1.59 and a .938. In postseason play (CCHA and NCAA Tournaments) in his career, Hunwick is 12-2-0 with a 1.71/.930. Stellar numbers.
10) North Dakota's "Pony Express" line of Frattin, Malone, and Trupp had 5-6--11 in the Midwest Regional and has 11-13--24 in UND's six playoff games this season. Ben Blood leads the NCAA with a +33 rating.
All in all, this is a matchup that on paper North Dakota should win. They're in the top-ten nationally in offense, defense, penalty kill, power play. They have the top goalie in the WCHA and are coming into the Frozen Four playing their best hockey. They have a huge edge on special teams.
That being said, for as impressive as all the numbers are, they've only won four more games than the Wolverines. Maybe I just bitch a lot, but I really didn't feel like Michigan had that great of a regular season. But the teams are in the same spot and it's one game with a berth in the NCAA Championship on the line.
Shawn Hunwick has proven to be stellar in the postseason. Michigan comes in having gone 11-1-0 in their last 12, so it's not like they've stumbled into this matchup. They're playing pretty darn good hockey in their own right. It's highly likely that they'll have Brandon Burlon back in the lineup after complications from strep throat forced him out of the CCHA Championship Weekend as well as the first two rounds of the tournament. And this team played as close to a perfect defensive game as you can possibly play against Colorado College in the West Regional Final.
In one-and-done anything can happen, but there are a couple of things that tilt this matchup in North Dakota's favor:
1) They have last change. That was the key to the victory over Colorado College. Red Berenson could get the match-up he wanted any time the Schwartzes were on the ice. He won't have that luxury tomorrow.
2) The special teams. North Dakota has a top-ranked power play and a top-ranked penalty kill. Michigan has struggled at times with both. They did a nice job against UNO and CC, but they've also had games where it's been avert-your-eyes bad. If Michigan can play them to a draw on the special teams, that's a major victory.
3) The crowd. While the Minnesota fans in attendance may be on Michigan's side, there is going to be a LOT of green in that crowd. Michigan was great at home this year (16-2-3) but went just 7-6-3 on the road. If it's closer to a road game than a neutral-site (5-2-0) game, that's a little more problematic as well. The Sioux just played at the XCel Center a couple of weeks ago. They're more familiar with the venue and they'll have the crowd advantage.
That being said, it is one and done hockey. Michigan's goalie is as good as anyone in the country. The defense corps is as good as any in the country. We know the coach is as good as any in the country. Maybe this isn't the Michigan team of recent memory that can afford to run-and-gun with a team like North Dakota. Maybe this is the team that has to play sound defensive hockey and try to muck out a win. They're certainly capable of piling up goals, we just haven't seen it with a ton of consistency. I think if Michigan is going to win tomorrow, it needs to be a lower scoring game. A 3-2 type of game. I don't know that they can get into a contest where they need to score 5 goals to win.
I believe in this team, I believe in Shawn Hunwick. I don't want tomorrow to be the last time I get to yell "BORK, BORK, BORK!". I really want to road-trip to the Twin Cities for the championship game on Saturday. One game, a spot in the title game on the line.
North Dakota is the best team remaining in the tournament, but as Brendan Morrison said, sometimes the best team doesn't always win.