New games stir old emotions

UND prepares for St. Cloud road trip

UND’s Luke Johnson skates earlier this season. File Photo.

The UND men’s hockey team skated off the ice at Ralph Engelstad Arena in early November at the conclusion of the St. Cloud game, and sat pondering in the locker room — realizing it had witnessed a new record.

But not the good kind.

With a 3-1 advantage for the visitors on the scoreboard, the Huskies became the first team to sweep North Dakota at the Ralph since Jan. 29-30, 2010.

Nearly four months later, that game still stings.

“Them sweeping us at home at the beginning of the year is obviously still fresh in our minds,” sophomore forward Rocco Grimaldi said. “It’s something we haven’t had happen to us in four years or whatever it was, so obviously it’s an important series for us. More than just what’s on the line. I think it’s just another series, another way to grow as a team and get better.”

The numbers speak for themselves as North Dakota jumped into the No. 1 spot in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference after sweeping the Bulldogs at Duluth last weekend, while a matching 39 points put St. Cloud in the same position.

UND has two series left in its regular season, and while the home stretch provides a good view of the potential outcomes, the team’s focus is still narrow.

“You always know the reality of your situation, and then you focus on the short term things,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “And that’s what our team has done really well over the last few months.”

Though the first half of the season yielded a .555 winning percentage, North Dakota’s improvement to .853 and just two losses in its past 17 games strings together its best 17-game streak since the 2010-11 season.

“I think we’ve been playing pretty good hockey over the last couple of months,” Hakstol said. “We’ve been pretty consistent. We’ve worked hard every night. I think we’re just seeing some of the benefits of that. I don’t think there’s been any major change in our game over the last couple weeks. I think its been a matter of building and growing and developing the team over the last few months.”

Gearing up

The freshmen in particular have settled more soundly into their roles.

Last weekend against Duluth, Luke Johnson tallied two goals against and an assist en route to claiming NCHC Rookie of the Week honors.

Paul LaDue notched two power play goals last Saturday to help turn a 2-1 deficit into a 6-2 victory.

“I think the great thing about our team is we can have different guys step up on different weekends,” Grimaldi said. “That’s what a great team does. You have different guys step up when the top line isn’t going … it just progresses through and someone else is a hero the next weekend and then someone else.

“You’ve got to have that to be a great team, so I think the freshmen have been doing a great job and being comfortable in their roles. Obviously, it’s not always easy coming into a team that’s been together for two, three or four years and you come in and make your place. So I think they’re doing a great job and working hard in practice and earning their spots and really adding to the team.”

It certainly wasn’t easy for Keaton Thompson. Just a few hours from his hometown of Devils Lake, N.D., the freshman patiently waited his turn for playing time.

“It’s never easy,” Hakstol said. “That transition, guys aren’t used to not being in the lineup and the challenge to come in and adjust to this level is a big one. I think Keaton handled it extremely well. He’s one of the hardest working guys at the rink every day. He did extra, he was always a great teammate throughout everything, so I think he handled it extremely well.”

Thompson recently has skated well on the blue line in front of a loyal North Dakota crowd, even posting a goal against Miami on Feb. 15.

But with a roadtrip to St. Cloud this weekend, the fans at the National Hockey Center have proven their worth.

“It’s a lot of fun,” senior captain Dillon Simpson said. “Their student section is usually pretty crazy. Even though they’re cheering against us, there’s some energy we feed off of.”

The energy level is high, and the atmosphere reflect nothing short of the potential to punch a ticket to the post-season tournament — after taking care of unfinished business.

“I think it’s just the time of year,” Grimaldi said. “Getting into March, it’s just playoff hockey. I think guys are excited for it. We don’t want to put too much on the line right now. Obviously, our big goal is to make the tournament and win the tournament. But other than that, more importantly, getting back at (St. Cloud) from a long time ago.”

Elizabeth Erickson is the sports editor for The Dakota Student. She can be reached at [email protected].