Sunday, March 25, 2012

Invisible Indians

The fire got turned up a notch under the Division I college hockey pressure cooker on Saturday afternoon as the no-nickname North Dakota skaters slid by Western Michigan's tough crew from Kalamazoo 3-1 and the Golden Gophers of Minnesota overwhelmed Boston University 7-3 in the West Regional of the NCAA playoffs in St. Paul. North Dakota, forbidden by the NCAA to wear its normal uniforms for reasons of political correctness, won its seventh consecutive game and ninth of its last ten with a disciplined and conservative effort against a strong Bronco squad. North Dakota has been led from the beginning of the season by the trio of Corban Knight, Brock Nelson and Danny Kristo, certainly one of the top lines in the country. But as the mild northern winter has turned into an early spring, others have come forward to contribute as well. Sr. captain Mario Lamoreux and relative newcomers Mitch MacMillan, Carter Rowney, Michael Parks and Stephane Pattyn have deepened the N.D. talent pool and kept the intensity level high for the entire game. The defense, anchored by the dangerous Ben Blood, has been solid all year.

Sunday afternoon the nameless North Dakotans will face the maroon and gold Gophers for one of the spots in the "Frozen Four" in the hockey hotbed of Tampa, FL. Yes, really. The swift, big and talented Minnesota team will have to play solid hockey for 60 minutes, something they haven't always been able to do. Last weekend, for instance, they blew a 3-0 lead against these same North Dakotans, giving up 6 unanswered goals and were eliminated in the WCHA tournament after having won the WCHA regular season championship. The Gophers have their most skilled team in years. Finn forward Erik Haula has developed from a playmaking center to an all-around scoring star. Sophomores Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish are exactly what NHL teams are looking for, burly, mobile forwards that thrive on contact. Neither will be around campus when the U of M leaves the WCHA for the new Big Ten hockey program in 2013. Freshman Kyle Rau has a rare gift for being in the right spot at the right time. These fellows were more than a hard-working Terrier squad could handle, although the Gopher's final two goals were dumped into an empty net.

So a small but enthusiastic segment of the population of the northern Great Plains will gather on a spring Sunday afternoon to watch the last really meaningful amateur game of the year to be played in the land of hockey. An unknown is what effect the NCAA sanctions on UND, and the mandate that they wear new uniforms with no reference to their nicknames, will have on the game. Will this unite them in an "us against them" mentality or will it be meaningless once the puck is dropped at 4:30 p.m?

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