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Hakstol guides, leads UND to Frozen Four

FNS Photo by John Stennes In this 2011 photo, University of North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol keeps a close eye on his team during practice.

GRAND FORKS — First, Dave Hakstol had to replace a pair of NHL first-round draft picks that could have been on this team. Then, he had to deal with another high pick leaving school midway through the season.

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When the University of North Dakota sat three games under .500 in late November, this UND men’s hockey season had all of the makings of one of those rare down seasons.

Instead, this team will be playing in the NCAA Frozen Four next week in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.

For guiding his team there, Hakstol is once again a finalist for the Spencer Penrose Award as the national coach of the year. This is the seventh time in 10 years he’s been up for the award, and UND’s all-time winningest coach says he would deserve it.

“This may be the best coaching job in a long time,” said Gino Gasparini, who coached UND for 16 seasons. “They’ve taken this team and, considering where they were early to where they are now, they’ve really done a great job. That’s a tribute to the staff and the players.

“It’s a lot tougher to get to the final four today. The difference is that now you have to go through these regionals and they are one-game shots. Anybody can beat anybody. There’s a lot more parity nationally now than there used to be.”

Gasparini said he was impressed as the team made its way through the NCAA Midwest Regional, beating the University of Wisconsin 5-2 and Ferris State 2-1 in double overtime.

“They appear to be very committed to each other and that’s important,” Gasparini said. “They compete hard and they pay attention to the details on the ice. I think that’s a big part of why they’ve been successful.

“They play hard. They work hard. They attack from the defense. Their defense is young, but they do an outstanding job. Their goaltender has played exceptionally well down the stretch. He was certainly good against Ferris.”

Many of Gasparini’s former players have gone on to big things in the coaching world in all levels of hockey. He’s able to keep the closest tabs on Hakstol, Dane Jackson and Brad Berry — all of whom played at UND under Gasparini.

“They really do an outstanding job,” Gasparini said. “And this year in particular, they’ve just done a tremendous job.”

The other Penrose Award finalists are Union’s Rick Bennett, Ferris State’s Bob Daniels, Mercyhurst’s Rick Gotkin, Minnesota’s Don Lucia, St. Cloud State’s Bob Motzko, Colgate’s Don Vaughan and Boston College’s Jerry York.

The award will be handed out later this month at the annual coaches’ convention in Florida.

Before that, UND hopes to add to its run this season when it plays Minnesota in a national semifinal game on Thursday (6:30 p.m., ESPN2). Although the Gophers are favored, Gasparini thinks UND has a shot.

“Why not?” he asked. “How much of a shot were people giving them to make it through the regionals? Who would have thought, the way the season started, that they were going to have a shot at winning the league title? Yet they were right there to the very end.

“I don’t think many people thought that UND would be here. The fans should enjoy this.”