FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 18
"Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" - Animal House
Today was certainly a far more newsworthy departure day than we are accustomed to. At noon, three hours before the team bus pulled out of Ralph Engelstad Arena, it was announced that WCHA Preseason Rookie of the Year Rocco Grimaldi will be sidelined six to eight weeks with the knee injury that has plagued him all season.
Based on my Twitter feed (@UNDSID) alone, Sioux hockey fans were understandably rattled by the news. After all, Grimaldi was widely regarded as the nation's top incoming freshman this season. We saw periodic glimpses of his game-breaking abilities, particular Saturday at Minnesota, despite his own admission that he hasn't been close to 100 percent this season.
So now the team, and its fans, must accept life without Grimaldi likely until sometime in January. We know the team will opt to focus on the 20 players who are in the lineup. My hope is the fans, which I am at heart, will do the same. All of the hand-wringing in the world two years ago did not bring Chay Genoway back to the lineup any sooner, and it won't bring Grimaldi back any sooner. Not surprisingly, though, doom and gloom abounds in the face of today's news. One of my Twitter friends opined, ‘The season is over.'
I respectfully disagree, and here are several reasons why:
• UND men's hockey has never been about one player. It never will be. I already mentioned the Genoway example but some may call it apples and oranges, citing the abundance of elite talent on that roster. But the 2011-12 squad is not devoid of talent. Grimaldi is but one of 15 National Hockey League draft picks on this year's Sioux roster, several of whom received NHL overtures last summer. The roster includes the 2009-10 WCHA Rookie of the Year and the 2010-11 INCH Goaltender of the Year. Backing up the aforementioned INCH Goaltender of the Year is a two-time All-WCHA performer in his own right. There is most certainly talent here, and we know they will play for each other.
• The schedule can't get much tougher. Every week is a grind, and no opponent is a ‘gimme.' We know these to be more than just clichés. But so far, UND's schedule has consisted of road trips to Mariucci Arena and the Kohl Center, and home games against Boston College, Maine and Air Force. That's downright brutal, particularly when you consider all of the lineup shuffling UND has had to endure so far.
• Look to last year for hope. It wasn't long ago that a WCHA team with postseason aspirations overcame a long-term injury to a freshman sensation to advance to the NCAA tournament. That team was the 2010-11 Colorado College Tigers, who lost Jaden Schwartz for 11 games in January and February due to injury. In fact, Schwartz missed 15 of CC's 45 games last season. Yet there were the Tigers in late March, knocking off vaunted Boston College to advance to the NCAA regional final. Based on Grimaldi's projected return of January, he would miss approximately 10 regular season games. CC survived a similar stretch (during a similar time of year) despite lacking an abundance of firepower. So can UND.
• In fact, UND has. We all remember the Sioux advancing to the 2001 NCAA championship game, ultimately falling to BC in overtime. What many don't remember is UND relying on the likes of Tyler Palmiscno, Adrian Hasbargen, Paul Murphy and Pat O'Leary on the third and fourth lines throughout the season. The top goal-scorer among that group was O'Leary with four. You don't need four high-power forward lines to chase a championship. But the aforementioned names provided sound minutes while the likes of Jeff Panzer, Bryan Lundbohm and Ryan Bayda did the heavy lifting offensively. This year, Danny Kristo, Brock Nelson and Corban Knight have shown they're capable of doing the same.
Both teams also boast All-Americans between the pipes; in 2001 it was Karl Goehring, now it's Aaron Dell.
On the blue line, I would argue the 2011-12 Sioux team has the edge in depth. With the exception of the elite skills of Travis Roche, UND's defensive corps in 2001 (and in 2000, for that matter) was closer to good than great. And good was good plenty enough. This year's blue line boasts proven commodities such as Ben Blood and Andrew MacWilliam, complemented by skilled underclassmen like Derek Forbort, Nick Mattson and Dillon Simpson. That's an uber-talented nucleus.
• Just get in. If there is ever a book written about the 2010-11 year in sports, it could be aptly named ‘Just Get In.'
It's hard to imagine now, but the most recent Super Bowl champion, the Green Bay Packers, did not clinch a playoff berth until the final week of the regular season. They qualified as the sixth seed in the NFC. The most recent World Series champion, the St. Louis Cardinals, needed the final day of the 162-game regular season to clinch a wild card berth. Closer to home, Minnesota Duluth placed fourth in the WCHA and lost on the opening day of the WCHA Final Five before winning four straight NCAA tournament games on the way to a national championship.
The theme is clear: just find a way to get into the tournament, by any means necessary. After that, anything can happen.
My take. The Sioux have made a habit of playing their best hockey in the second half under Dave Hakstol. But the start to this season seems to have been more cruel than most. First, the team lost an incoming first-round draft pick when J.T. Miller opted to play Canadian juniors. Then it was Colten St. Clair unexpectedly having to sit out the year. Then it was long-term injuries to Brendan O'Donnell and Rocco Grimaldi. There are only so many hits a team can withstand without being affected. But give them a break. Give them some time.
The bye week has allowed the team to get healthier, and O'Donnell will return to the lineup this weekend. Dell seems to have found his game, and if he plays the way he played at Minnesota, the Sioux will win their share of games for that reason alone. The talented blue line group is starting to round into form and play to expectations. Freshmen like O'Donnell, Mark MacMillan, Michael Parks and Nick Mattson will only get better. The locker room is in good hands with the likes of Mario Lamoureux showing the way. The coaching staff's track record speaks for itself.
Do Sioux hockey fans have a right to be frustrated so far? Absolutely. Is it time to write the season off? Well, where exactly is the fun in that? Sit back and try to enjoy the ride. Every season is littered with highs and lows, some higher and some lower than others. That's sports.
Like Tom Hanks (as Jimmy Dugan) said in A League of Their Own, "The hard is what makes it great."
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 19
Back from a loose and spirited morning skate, doing some "homework" from the hotel lobby overlooking the lake and waiting for Hennessy (my lunch date on the road) to arrive.
The lineup is set and will be available on this blog and on Twitter (@UNDMHockey) shortly after we arrive at the arena at 5 p.m. That I have the lineup in hand already is an indication that the team did indeed get healthier during the bye week (Grimaldi notwithstanding).
On more than one occasion I've not gotten the lineup until later in the day as the coaching staff determines who can go and who can't.
Pierre Lamoureux and I received a bit of a scare last night while enjoying a nightcap in the hotel restaurant. A waitress approached us and said, "A couple of my girlfriends said they are upstairs partying with a bunch of your players, and I'm wondering which room that's in."
Pierre and I were floored with panic. I'm not really sure each of us had fully processed what she was saying, and before we could even respond, she laughed, pointed across the restaurant and said, "Sorry, that gentleman put me up to it."
She was pointing directly at the father of a player who shall remain nameless. Needless to say, we bought it, hook, line and sinker, and the dad-who-shall-remain-nameless got a tremendous laugh at our expense.
Let's dedicate this blog entry to the Great West Conference champion Sioux football team and its epic comeback win today over South Dakokta.
Out: Senkbeil, Grimaldi, Panzarella, Maris
SUNDAY, NOV. 20
That was quite a victory last night by a team that needed one in the worst way.
Senior captain Mario Lamoureux received the team's hard hat in the locker room last night, and deservedly so, but he was very quick to single out freshman Brendan O'Donnell for his first career goal in his return to the lineup.
I stayed back this morning to work on game notes, but apparently the team bus wouldn't start and the team had to make a fairly lengthy, and cold, walk to the Sanford Center and back. I guess I picked the right morning skate to skip.
Apparently a new UND bus is on its way from Grand Forks.
If you'll recall, last year the team bus was rear-ended on the way to Bemidji and we had to have a school bus pick us up and drive us the rest of the way.
Only one lineup change tonight for the Sioux: freshman defenseman will make his first appearance at forward, replacing Taylor Dickin on the fourth line. Panzarella will play the right side, while fellow freshman Connor Gaarder moves over to the left of center Stephane Pattyn.