COLUMBUS, Ohio — North Dakota doesn’t need to spend much time going over video on its opponent in today’s NCAA hockey final.
They already know the defending champion Denver Pioneers. Almost too well.
The teams — both members of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association — have met three times this season, with the Pioneers winning all three.
Naturally, the Fighting Sioux don’t believe the past counts for much.
“It’s just how you perform in that one game that determines who wins the championship,” defenseman Matt Greene said. “It’s not past events.”
That’s particularly true if North Dakota is a different team from the one that was swept at home by the Pioneers in February by identical 4-2 scores, and then lost 2-1 in overtime in the semifinals of the WCHA tournament March 18.
“They’ve done a terrific job keeping the ship in the right direction,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said.
So even though the Fighting Sioux finished a distant fifth in the regular-season conference standings behind co-champion Denver, the 58th NCAA final remains a one-night, winner-take-all event.
North Dakota, which has won seven national championships, beat rival Minnesota 4-2 in the semifinals on Thursday night. Denver, with six national championships, defeated Colorado College 6-2.
“North Dakota was a different team, even from when we played them three weeks ago,” Denver defenseman Matt Latsch said. “They’re a heck of a hockey team right now. They’re playing physical, they’re playing to all their strengths and we’re going to have to play a very good game to compete.”
If North Dakota (25-14-5) wins the title, it would match the most losses ever for a champion (Wisconsin, 1981).
The Fighting Sioux were a mediocre 14-10-3 after losing that home sweep to the Pioneers. But their lowest point came two weeks later. With most of the team healthy and playing at its peak, they won at Alaska-Anchorage 6-3 on Friday night. Twenty-four hours later, they blew a third-period lead in a 5-2 setback, then had to mull the possibility of a lost season on the interminable flight home.
“You had a lot of time to think about the game,” Greene said. “That was definitely the lowest point.”
A good week of practice — and the feeling that they couldn’t afford another loss or else they would lose their tenuous grip on an NCAA berth — turned things around. Players started getting healthy and the momentum began building. Since that lengthy return flight, North Dakota is 9-1-2, with the only loss to Denver.
In that game, North Dakota defenseman Robbie Bina was checked into the boards from behind by Geoff Paukovich. Bina was immobilized and taken to a hospital. Three days later, he had one shattered vertebra removed and two others fused. Two days after that, he was on hand to wish his teammates well as they left for the NCAA East Regional in Worcester, Mass.
Both sides say Bina’s injury — he might be able to return next fall — has no bearing on the game. Yet it adds some flavor. The teams respect each other, but are far from fond of each other.
“It was just one of those things that happened,” North Dakota goaltender Jordan Parise said. “The only bad blood that’s there is just they beat us — they beat us three times — and we have to come out with a flawless performance in order to take this game from them.”
Denver is a retooled version of the team that beat Maine a year ago in the final. Only four schools have won titles back-to-back — and the Pioneers have already done it twice (1960-61, 1968-69).
Many of last year’s stars are back — leading scorer Gabe Gauthier and seniors Jeff Drummond, Laatsch and Luke Fulghum.
Add sterling freshmen Peter Mannino, who will start in goal, and forward Paul Stastny, the son of Hall of Famer Peter Stastny, and the Pioneers have turned into an explosive, confident bunch.