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Brad E. Schlossman, Published October 09 2009

College hockey: Sioux set for home opener

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Merrimack hasn’t played a Western Collegiate Hockey Association team in three years and has never played the University of North Dakota. The last time it made the big stage of the NCAA tournament was 1988.

So, an introduction may be in order for UND’s season-opening opponent (7:37 tonight, 7:07 p.m. Saturday, Ralph Engelstad Arena). There are four big facts to know:

Merrimack College is located in North Andover, Mass. The team finished ninth last season in Hockey East, the dominant conference on the coast, and has been picked to finish 10th this season.

Merrimack’s method of operation is to win low-scoring games. The Warriors didn’t do a very good job of it last season, losing 14 games by one goal – most in the country.

Sophomore goalie Joe Cannata is an elite player who came from the U.S. Under-18 national team (he was teammates with UND rookie Danny Kristo). Cannata posted a 2.35 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage as a rookie.

The team’s problem has been scoring goals. The only 10-goal scorer on last year’s team decided to leave during the offseason. And standout recruit Stephane Da Costa, a Frenchman who finished fourth in United States Hockey League scoring last year, has not made it through the NCAA Clearinghouse yet.

“Merrimack is probably a team not all that well known by fans,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “But they are going to see a team that skates well, works hard and has pretty good depth through the lineup. It so happens that this year, they are a very veteran team.”

Banner going up

For the second time in the “new” Ralph Engelstad Arena, UND will be raising a banner to the rafters.

Before the teams hit the ice tonight, the 2008-09 WCHA regular season championship banner will be raised to the ceiling of the arena. It will be placed next to the 2003-04 WCHA title banner, which is the other championship UND won in the $104 million arena.

Weekend to watch

Although UND won the MacNaughton Cup a year ago, an NCAA tournament berth was not 100 percent secured at the end of the regular season.

The reason? Nonconference play.

UND struggled in nonconference games, going 0-2 at the Icebreaker Invitational and the Great Lakes Invitational. Because nonconference games play a big role in the NCAA tournament selection process, UND was behind the eight-ball for much of the season.

Battle of the Serratores

Bemidji will host the Battle of the Serratore brothers this weekend, when Beavers coach Tom Serratore goes up against Air Force, coached by his brother, Frank.

Last season, Air Force swept Bemidji State with 6-2 and 6-0 wins in Colorado Springs, Colo. Bemidji State ended up making a run to the Frozen Four, while Air Force finished an overtime goal away from reaching the national semifinals, too.

The game also will showcase several area players.

Air Force’s roster includes 2009 Hobey Baker Memorial finalist Jacques Lamoureux (Grand Forks Central), 2006 North Dakota Mr. Hockey Paul Weisgarber (Fargo South), forward Brett Nylander (Lake of the Woods) and forward Matt Becker (Moorhead).

Quick hits

As of Thursday morning, there were 300 tickets remaining for tonight’s game and 186 available for Saturday’s game ... It is parents weekend at UND ... The NCAA has shrunk Ford Field’s capacity for the 2010 Frozen Four from 70,000 to 36,000 because of slow ticket sales.

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.