Brad E. Schlossman / Forum Communications Co., Published January 11 2012
UND set for Minnesota in men's hockeyGRAND FORKS – In recent weeks, the University of North Dakota has not had enough healthy players to fill out a full lineup.
Among those missing: the team captain, a first-round draft pick, the first-line center and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association preseason rookie of the year.
Yet somehow, with a patchwork lineup where nearly half of the forwards are walk-ons, defensemen or both, UND has found its stride and become one of the country’s hottest teams.
UND is 7-1-1 in the last nine games. The loss came in overtime, while UND held a two-goal lead in the third period during the tie.
So the team that left Mariucci Arena two months ago 3-6-1 overall and 1-5 in WCHA play will welcome the rival Gophers to Ralph Engelstad Arena this weekend.
“We’ve been doing a little of everything better,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said.
“We’ve been finding ways to win games. Early on, we lost a lot of close games. We seemed to be in every game, but we couldn’t find a way to win them. Now, we’re getting a little more out of everybody and finding a way to win close games.”
UND has done that despite not knowing who will be in or out of the lineup most weekends. This weekend is more of the same.
UND knows it will be without fifth-round pick Derek Rodwell (out for the season) and preseason rookie of the year Rocco Grimaldi (week to week, knee).
Top-line center Corban Knight (leg), first-round pick Derek Forbort (undisclosed) and captain Mario Lamoureux have been touch-and-go for the last month and will be game time decisions this weekend.
“We don’t really know if guys are going to be back or not,” junior forward Danny Kristo said. “You’ve just got to worry about yourself. Control what you can control, get ready for games. You’ve got to be ready to do whatever is best for the team and help the team go out and get a win.”
Alternate captain Ben Blood added: “We’re used to it a little bit now. It’s not a huge shocker in the locker room when somebody’s jersey isn’t up there or someone is not in the lineup. We’ve adapted better to that.”
Hakstol said it’s possible that the team wasn’t adapting well to that early in the season.
“The first month, we seemed like maybe we were peeking over the hedges a little bit, wondering who is in and who is out,” Hakstol said. “Could that have been a factor? Maybe. It probably was. I don’t think it’s a factor now with the guys. They show up and go to work, whether it’s a Tuesday or a Friday game day. Guys are showing up, going to work and doing whatever they can do.”
Up front, UND has received big production from walk-on Connor Gaarder, who was scratched in nine of the team’s first 10 games, including both in Mariucci Arena. Since that series, he has been in the lineup every night and has produced six points in the last six games.
Walk-on forward-turned-defenseman Dan Senkbeil and summer addition Stephane Pattyn have been consistently in the lineup lately, too, slowly and steadily becoming more reliable. And rookies like Brendan O’Donnell (who missed a couple of weeks with an injury earlier this year, including the Gopher series), Mark MacMillan and Michael Parks have added offense.
Defensively, veterans Ben Blood and Andrew MacWilliam have taken on big minutes, while youngsters Dillon Simpson and Nick Mattson have quickly progressed.
“They are learning to face adversity and deal with that,” Hakstol said. “There’s going to be more (adversity) to come. This is a team that’s not going to go blow anyone out of the water. We’ve got to show up and be a real solid, strong, two-way hockey team. That’s going to have to be the way we win games right now. That takes a lot of concentration and focus to continually carry that style of play.”
Minnesota, which outshot UND by significant margins during the early November series, will be favored this weekend, but that won’t mean a lot to the UND players.
“I’m proud of our team, but I was proud of our team back in October when not a lot of people had good things to say,” Hakstol said. “I’m proud of these guys, but it’s not based on one or two months of work. It’s based on what these guys are. They are a good, character group of guys.”
Schlossman writes for the Grand Forks Herald