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Tom Miller / Forum News Service, Published March 30 2013

Miller: UND never quite found its groove this season

Grand Rapids, Mich.

Some in the college hockey world will be shocked by No. 15 seed Yale’s 4-1 win over North Dakota on Saturday in the championship game of the NCAA Division I men’s hockey tournament West Regional.

They shouldn’t be.

And not just because of the extreme parity that exists in college hockey today.

We shouldn’t be surprised because this UND team never hit its stride. It always felt like something was missing.

North Dakota might have been eight minutes away from a trip to the Frozen Four, but the Green and White seemingly couldn’t find the right combinations all year.

“I don’t know if we reached our full potential,” UND senior Corban Knight said outside of a quiet, emotional locker room at Van Andel Arena. “I think maybe we did for a couple of periods this year, but I’m not sure we sustained that for a full game or series. That’s frustrating. We had such a good team, but we came up short.”

UND entered the final weekend of the season unsure of who would start in net and who would be left wing on its top line. It’s pretty unbelievable that these vital spots were up in the air on a nightly basis in late March.

North Dakota’s Hobey Baker Award finalists Knight and Danny Kristo were mainstays on the top line all season. UND tried seven different players to join the dominant duo: Brendan O’Donnell, Rocco Grimaldi, Carter Rowney, Michael Parks, Mark MacMillan, Mitch MacMillan and Drake Caggiula each took a turn.

Nothing seemed to work. Even Saturday, Grimaldi’s return to the top line, which seemed to rejuvenate the team in the third period Friday night against Niagara, didn’t spark the unit.

The lack of chemistry is evident in one big statistic: Kristo, arguably the best player in the country, registered one shot on goal (although he did hit a post) against Yale.

Then there were the hit-and-miss adventures in net throughout the season. In goal, freshman Zane Gothberg and junior Clarke Saunders never reigned in the No. 1 goalie title.

Of course, that wasn’t the problem that ended UND’s season. After inconsistent play late in the regular season, both goalies did turn in strong performances at the regional.

Instead, it was an anemic power play, which ended the year scoreless in its last 20 tries – another element of UND’s game that had a roller-coaster feel. North Dakota entered the playoffs with the second-best power play in the country since January.

There also was the wait for the classic end-of-the-year run. UND’s patented second-half push never really materialized, though. This was just the second time in Dave Hakstol’s nine years as head coach that North Dakota didn’t have better record after Christmas than before the holiday.

In the postgame news conference, Hakstol said it’s difficult to evaluate a season so quickly after its completion.

“I don’t think I can answer that,” Hakstol said. “The facts of the matter is that we played an extremely difficult schedule and these guys worked extremely hard throughout the entire season. And I know it hurts to end on a loss.”

Despite UND’s inconsistencies this season, the team came painfully close to a trip to Pittsburgh and a chance at an eighth national championship.

“We had a great team this year,” Mark MacMillan said. “Sometimes you need the bounces to go your way and tonight wasn’t our night.”