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Top-seed North Dakota enters as Frozen favorite

Sam Gans | Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The NCAA Tournament began with four No. 1 seeds eyeing a national championship. As the Frozen Four begins, only one is still standing.

North Dakota has emerged as the runaway favorite to hoist its eighth NCAA championship trophy Saturday night in Saint Paul, largely due to the fact that it is the highest-ranked team remaining, but also because it is dominating play in recent weeks.

After capturing the WCHA tournament title with a 3-2 double overtime win against Denver March 19, the Fighting Sioux (32-8-3) defeated the Pioneers again March 27 to advance to the Frozen Four, this time by an impressive 6-1 margin. North Dakota also beat Rensselaer 6-0 in the first round. The victories are part of an 11-game winning streak and the Sioux haven’t lost in 15 games.

Focus is the driving point behind the Sioux’s run, said North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol.

“I think what we did well [in the NCAA regionals] is really keep ourselves focused on the job at hand as a team and play a good, team game,” Hakstol said. “When you go through and break a game down on video, [there are] a lot of points in a hockey game where momentum can shift in one direction or the other if you get distracted, if you allow a bad bounce or a tough play to affect you. I thought our team did a good job on having just a real, good, strong perspective.”

The Sioux roster features one of the top players in college hockey, senior right wing Matt Frattin. Frattin, who was recently named one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award given annually to the best player in college hockey, tallied an NCAA-leading 36 goals on the season and is second in the country with 60 points.

Frattin is a source of inspiration for North Dakota. Following a pair of underwhelming freshman and sophomore seasons, Frattin was charged with a DUI in August 2009, resulting in Hakstol kicking him off the team and removing his scholarship. Yet Frattin fought his way back onto the squad in December 2009, with a new attitude and this time paying his own way,

“I don’t know if I would have thought he’d have 36 goals,” senior captain and defenseman Chay Genoway said. “If you had said that at the beginning of the year, I might have been a little bit surprised. But we knew what Matt was capable [of] when he came in as a freshman. And when he had his back up against the wall [after] what he went through, when he came back to our program a couple years ago, you could just see a change in him and I think the sky was the limit from there.”

What truly makes North Dakota so dangerous is the number of matchup problems it provides. Five Sioux players are in the top 43 in scoring in the country. The Sioux also have first-team All-WCHA members at forward, defenseman and goaltender, in Frattin, Genoway and sophomore netminder Aaron Dell.

“We really pride ourselves on depth,” Genoway said. “I think we can really roll four lines and play six [defensemen], and [we have] two goalies who can play any given night.”

This depth was developed in large part due to injuries sustained during the season. Genoway, forward Jason Gregoire and defensemen Derek Forbort and Andrew MacWilliam, among others, have missed significant time this season. All are now back.

“I think [injuries are] one thing that’s strengthened this group,” Hakstol said. “It’s given them probably a deeper belief in themselves. Whoever is available, whichever 20 guys are dressed, have an expectation to go out individually, contribute and collectively find a way to win a hockey game. This past weekend, we had everyone available and we went out and we did the job.”

Despite the fact that Dakota is expected to win it all, Hakstol knows nothing is guaranteed, especially in a single elimination tournament facing a historical power in the semifinals. There is no looking too far ahead.

“We play a game Thursday night against the University of Michigan,” he said. “There’s nothing beyond that in our mind. That’s our job, that’s what we’re preparing for.”

Hakstol is primarily concerned with making sure his team simply plays its typical game. They are the favorite, after all.

“Michigan’s a great hockey team. But at the end of the day, we really concentrate on preparing ourselves to play our game and to play the way that we can and the way that we’ve been successful to this point in the year. You don’t change the things you do at this time of the year. You try to do them well and put your best foot forward.”