Unease Settles Over Fighting Hawks Nation

Photo: NCAA.com

After three consecutive Frozen Fours without a title, the confidence that usually engulfs the North Dakota faithful this time of year has been tempered. Many of them argue that they have lost three in a row so they must be ‘due’ for another national title. However, behind the scenes, the question must be asked – Could UND hockey become this era’s version of the Buffalo Bills (1990-1993)? Or better yet, the Atlanta Braves?

As for this year’s Frozen Four, DU has now made 15 appearances to North Dakota’s 22 trips – yet both schools have 7 NCAA titles.

While the North Dakota faithful may think of the Fighting Hawks as the New York Yankees of college hockey, they are more like the Atlanta Braves. The Braves are another team that won their division four straight times (2002-2005) but could never make it out of the National League Divisional Series. From 1996 through 2013 they made the postseason a whopping 13 times, making it to two World Series but didn’t win either time.

What makes college hockey unique is not just graduating seniors (8 for North Dakota at the end of last year) but losing top talent to the professional leagues as well. Last year UND lost a stellar goalie in Zane McIntyre and defenseman in Jordan Schmaltz to the pros. Under former coach Dave Hakstol, players seemed more focused on meting out punishment on the ice and/or using college hockey as a stepping stone to a professional career.

The latest UND team and style is very different than the Hakstol era – controlled while still talented and explosive. Under new coach Brad Berry, the playing style at North Dakota has changed. Widely known as a dirty team around hockey prior to Berry, North Dakota is currently a pedestrian 20th in NCAA penalty minutes – 11.3 penalty minutes per game. They still play excellent physical defense with 1.86 goals (2nd in the country) allowed per game and 7th in scoring with 3.64 points per game. This is a more disciplined squad than former head coach Dave Hakstol coached and they clearly play a smarter brand of hockey. The change in style may bring about a change of luck – or the skid could continue for the Fighting Hawks for a fifth year.

Adding to the pressure, this year’s Frozen Four may be the strongest field of teams in recent memory. The teams bring the most combined wins ever to a Frozen Four- 116.  Quinnipiac (31-3-7) is an up-and-coming hockey power. Even at number 1 in the Pairwise Rankings, they are still underrated and under-appreciated by many fans. Of course, Boston College (28-7-5) is a long time eastern hockey blue blood with Jerry York, the most accomplished coach in college hockey. North Dakota (32-6-4) seems to always be fighting for the NCAA hockey title and comes to the table loaded with talent – as usual. The University of Denver (25-9-6) is the hottest team in college hockey since the beginning of 2016 – effectively implementing Jim Montgomery’s scheme of ‘200 feet of relentless Pioneer Hockey’. Even the most biased observer would say that each of the four teams has an equal chance of bringing home the hardware this year.

The psyches of the teams are different, however. DU is excited about making their first Frozen Four appearance in more than a decade and bringing Pioneer hockey back to an elite level. This is BC’s fourth Frozen Four in the last six years and is eager to add to their Hockey East accomplishments. Quinnipiac was a runner-up to Yale in 2013’s Frozen Four and is gunning for their first NCAA title. Still, the greatest pressure clearly rests with North Dakota Fighting Hawks whose best finish since their 2000 National Title was a runner-up to Denver in 2005. Despite the Broadmoor Trophy wins and impressive regular season records, UND goes into this tournament with the most to prove and the most to lose.