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NCAA Hockey: Notre Dame advances, can anyone stop Sioux?

Ryan Lambert
Puck Daddy

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In which we recap the day's events in the NCAA tournament, via Puck Daddy columnist Ryan Lambert.

Jason Zucker's goal could have made the game interesting. Instead, it just made the Sioux angry.

Zucker had been Denver's double-overtime hero the night before, and his timely goalscoring seemed once again to rear its head. He scored from behind the net with just 0.2 seconds on the clock, pulling his Pioneers even with North Dakota. Prior to that, the Sioux had kind of lazily pushed their way through the first period, with a Mario Lamoureux shorthanded snipe having been the only difference.

But what Sioux coach Dave Hakstol said during the intermission, after what must have been seen as an unforgivable lapse in so-called compete level, clearly put a scare into his club.

They came out in the second period flying, hitting everything that moved, and exhibiting the lethal touch around the net that has become the hallmark of the greatest squads to ever pull on North Dakota sweaters. What had been a tie game stayed that way for another 7:06 until Evan Trupp's sticktoitiveness around the net resulted in the last goal the Sioux would need -- not that this was in any way a deterrent to their scoring more.

By the time the game was over, North Dakota had pumped six goals into the Denver net, just as it had the night before against RPI, and it seemed the considerably heightened quality in opponent mattered not at all.

The Sioux got goals from all four of their lines and one of their pairings; and netminder Aaron Dell, who made 26 saves and set a school record with his 30th win of the year, had ample time to think about what he would do on the off day in St. Paul in two weeks. Even despite the increase in physical play, the Sioux rarely took penalties, giving the Pios just four power play opportunities all night, none of which came to much of anything except a Lamoureux's shortie.

Plus, all its goals were timely, and crushed what should have otherwise been shifts in momentum to the Pios' benefit.

Dispatching their bitter conference rivals with shocking ease — including the ignominious but always hurtful goal-scored-on-the-goalie-after-an-empty-netter — just as it had against the far inferior RPI Engineers the night before gives the Sioux enough cachet to officially be the scariest team remaining in the tournament. Not only do they seem to have the overwhelming skill and cavernous depth needed to handle any opponent they face, but they also have what the best teams in any competitive sport have: a strong killer instinct and a notable lack of compunction in using it frequently.

The Sioux piled in three goals during the harrowing final five minutes of the third period, twisting the knife after toying with the Pioneers for the opening 15. When Denver should have been playing at its most desperate, it was instead feckless, and was outshot 12-6 in the final frame of its season.

NoDak's naysayers could point to the fact that prior to the 6-1 loss, Denver had just competed in a multiple-overtime game the night before as a reason for the tired legs and minds of the opponents — certainly, Denver coach George Gwozdecky laid the blame for the loss there — but that ignores the Sioux's seeming refusal to lose.

Since Jan. 29, North Dakota is 14-0-1, having outscored opponents 78-20, never scoring less than three goals in a single game, and only conceding three twice. That includes outscoring opponents 12-1 this weekend.

No one else left in the field has that kind of consistency, lethality or defensive wherewithal.

As far as the Frozen Four goes, the road to the title pretty much runs through the grim and mighty Sioux until they give people a reason to believe otherwise. Problem is, their first misstep in more than two months would be their last.

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Three stars

1. Mike Johnson, Notre Dame

Making 38 saves and allowing just one goal is usually plenty to win you a hockey game, but the team in front of Johnson really seemed to intent on keeping the game interesting. The Irish held a two-goal lead on UNH through more than 46 minutes, but gave up a goal to UNH's Mike Sislo at 13:37 of the third, then took a penalty 2:20 after that. But Johnson and the Notre Dame PK stood up to that challenge as they had the rest of the night to pick up a tighter-than-it-needed-to-be 2-1 victory over the host Wildcats, and advance to the Frozen Four.

2. Aaron Dell, North Dakota

When your goaltender is your best player, things are generally pretty easy to deal with. When he allows one goal on 48 shots in the NCAA tournament, he's making it really easy to go the other way. Though they outscored their opponents by 11 over that frightening two-day scorched earth campaign, Dell was undoubtedly the finest player on the ice in Green Bay and, perhaps, anywhere in the country.

3. Chay Genoway, North Dakota

The senior defenseman set up three of North Dakota's six goals, including a shortie, and was generally a menace to Denver forwards all night. The kid would probably have a Hobey Baker on his shelf from last season had it not been derailed by an injury that limited him to just nine games. And while his offense hasn't exactly come back as many expected it would, last night he showed the type of overwhelming skill and all-encompassing presence that typifies pretty much all of NoDak's defensemen. Taking them on will be a tall task for Michigan in two weeks' time.

Ryan Lambert covers the NCAA hockey tournament for Puck Daddy. You can e-mail him here if you want, but you should definitely follow him on Twitter.

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