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Ready or not, Bulldogs claim they could upset Fighting Sioux

The rest of the WCHA might scoff at their chances, but the UMD Bulldogs are marching off to Grand Forks, N.D., to face the WCHA champion North Dakota Fighting Sioux in a best-of-three playoff series this weekend with an odd sort of confidence.

The rest of the WCHA might scoff at their chances, but the UMD Bulldogs are marching off to Grand Forks, N.D., to face the WCHA champion North Dakota Fighting Sioux in a best-of-three playoff series this weekend with an odd sort of confidence.
The Sioux finished 18-4-6, with a 14-game (9-0-5) unbeaten streak still alive, and a 15-game home-ice unbeaten streak. Coming off a season of 3-22-3 in the WCHA, which is the poorest record in UMD's 35-year history in the league, it seems outrageous to even consider that the Bulldogs could win two out of three from the powerful Fighting Sioux in one weekend when they've only won three league games all season.
But that's the wonder of playoff time.
Coach Scott Sandelin, not so secretly, has hoped for this matchup for quite a while. Most last-place teams would be quaking in their skates at the thought of facing the league champs, but Sandelin knows what can happen from both sides, as a former Sioux coach and as a rookie head coach at UMD.
"I'm looking forward to going back there, and I think it's only fitting that we should be the ones to play the last games in that building," said Sandelin. "We've got to focus on the Friday game. If we win, we put a lot of pressure on them. I think it'll be a great series, but we've got to be at our best."
North Dakota, ranked No. 3 in the nation, would undoubtedly get picked for an NCAA playoff slot even if the Bulldogs pulled off the upset of the year this weekend and knocked them out of the WCHA Final Five. The only way UMD could advance to the NCAA is to beat North Dakota this weekend, then beat the second-lowest ranked finisher in the Final Five qualifying game, then beat the top seed, then beat the No. 2 seed to win the league playoff title and claim the automatic berth into the NCAA.
Improbable, implausible and ridiculous as that might seem, it is not impossible, if you talk to the Bulldogs.
"This is the series, and the arena, where we're best-suited," said defenseman Ryan Coole, one of six UMD seniors whose collegiate careers will last only as long as the team can win and keep winning. "For us seniors, this is all we've got. We've got to go out there and work hard, and it would be a great ending to go on to the Xcel Energy Center. My four years here have been fun, I can't complain. This is where I belong."
Jesse Fibiger, another senior defenseman, said: "We haven't won a game on the road all year, but weirder things have happened. We've played North Dakota tough, and we know we can beat them if everybody plays their best. It's tough, but not impossible. For me, personally, maybe I put a lot more pressure on myself, but things have gotten better in the second half of the season. It's tough to play with confidence when you're not winning much."
Derek Derow, who started the season as captain, then was injured, then lost the captaincy, then struggled just to get back into the lineup after another injury threatened to leave him sidelined as his senior season ebbed away, is back in the lineup and promoted to the top line with Tommy Nelson and Jon Francisco. "My season? Brutal," Derow said, in a word. "But I'm excited for this weekend. If we all play our best, and play even with their top two lines, our odds are pretty good."
Leave it to Mark Gunderson, a senior center, to deliver a touch of humor. When asked if he thought UMD could win this weekend, Gunderson said: "Beat who? Oh, North Dakota?"
It was suggested to Gundy that there was nobody left on the schedule for the foreseeable future except North Dakota. Stickhandling furiously, Gundy said: "Uh, I thought you mean after North Dakota. Our focus is on North Dakota right now. We played 'em pretty tight, and had 'em in one game here."
That game saw the 'Dogs lose a 3-2 lead to two third-period North Dakota goals, then score an apparent goal when Jon Francisco jammed the puck in just as the clock went to 0:00. Referee John Seidel ruled that it was no goal, because the DECC's goal judge lights were reportedly not hooked up to the electronic lockout, which blocks the red goal light from coming on after time expires. Since the clock read 0:00, the Bulldogs went home bitter with a 4-3 loss.
Later, a DECC official said that the electronic lockout was tested, and it was working perfectly. So the goal should have counted, because the goal-judge's switch turned on the red light, apparently a millisecond before the clock went to 0:00.
Still, it's quite bold for David to go boldly into its match with Goliath, but that seems to be the Bulldogs' mind-set.
"It's been terrible sitting and watching," said junior winger Judd Medak, who appeared destined to sit and watch with an injury that presumably ended his season. Now, however, he's ready to return to the lineup. "I learned a lot, just by watching. In a way, it's too bad everybody can't sit out a few weeks and watch what's happening. When you hear what the coaches are saying, and watch what's happening, you can learn a lot.
"But we're not afraid to go into North Dakota. Our style kind of suits that building. They're a good team, but when we're successful, it means we're playing physical and smart."
Ryan Homstol acknowledged how bad the season has been, and yet the Bulldogs have made stutter-steps of improvement all season. "We don't want to dwell on our past," he said. "Besides, everyone is 0-0 right now."

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