In August, North Dakota coach Dean Blais said that this season would be a “rebuilding year.”
The Fighting Sioux are the defending national champions, but after losing three key forwards along with their top defenseman to the professional ranks, Blais questioned the amount of firepower he had left in his arsenal.
Little did he know that his team would win its fourth WCHA title in five seasons and would have the chance to be college hockey”s first repeat national champions since 1972.
Nor could he fathom what kind of adversity both he and his team would encounter along the way.
Perhaps a product of the preseason hype, North Dakota won two of its first seven games. Losses to lowly Michigan Tech and MSU-Mankato resulted.
“We gave up a couple easy losses, and it almost came down to that,” North Dakota senior defenseman Trevor Hammer said. “We knew we had to change things around.”
And The Fighting Sioux did turn it around, winning 10 of their next 12 games going into Christmas.
Hobey Baker Award finalist Jeff Panzer took the team on his shoulders and the potent first line single-handidly made the difference in many games.
The 5-foot-10 Panzer has accounted for over 45 percent of the Fighting Sioux”s offense, largely because of his right hand men Bryan Lundbohm and Ryan Bayda.
Lundbohm acts as a sniper on the line with Panzer and Bayda. Many of his 58 points have come as a result of his gritty boardwork.
Just when North Dakota was finally coming together at mid-season, another tragedy tested the mettle of the Fighting Sioux.
Blais” daughter was diagnosed with leukemia in December, which forced North Dakota”s fearless leader to spend the rest of the season traveling the 1300-mile trek from Grand Forks, ND to his home in Rochester, NY and back to spend time with his daughter. While he never missed a game, Blais was in-and-out of practices sporadically.
The Fighting Sioux was no longer just a nickname. It became a mentality.
“This year we”ve had to deal with a lot of what coach Blais goes through with his daughter,” Hammer said. “I think that made us stronger as a team to know what we had to fight through.”
Another grave battle lies ahead for North Dakota. Its title hopes run through Michigan State who has held the No. 1 ranking for the past 19 weeks dating back to November.
The game may come down to the play of Michigan State”s Hobey Baker Award finalist, sophomore goaltender Ryan Miller, who broke a 70-year-old record for shutouts in just one-and-a-half seasons with the Spartans.