Zajac, Sioux extend memorable run

Updated: April 11, 2005, 2:54 PM ET
By David Albright | ESPN.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It wasn't exactly a summer to remember in Grand Forks.

Not only did North Dakota lose head coach Dean Blais to the NHL, but first-team All-America forwards Brandon Bochenski and Zach Parise weren't far behind and they, too, moved up to professional hockey.

Enter Travis Zajac. The freshman from Winnipeg is doing his part to help the Fighting Sioux faithful forget the dearly departed.

He's a freshman by status but we have a lot of confidence in him. He is as good a two-way center man, I believe, that there is in college hockey.
UND coach Dave Hakstol on Travis Zajac
Zajac scored two goals Thursday night, including the game-winner, as North Dakota (25-14-5) beat Minnesota 4-2 to advance to Saturday's national championship game against Denver (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).

It was Zajac's fifth two-goal game of the season and his second against the Gophers (Oct. 22).

"I tried to play the same way I have all year," Zajac said. "Just go out and be physical right off the bat, get myself into the game. I had a couple of scoring chances that I probably should have buried. But I was able to work through it and fight through and get a couple tonight.

"I love playing in the playoffs," Zajac added. "I think this is my best time, where I play my best hockey. I'm just trying to elevate my game when the games get bigger and bigger."

It gets no bigger than the NCAA tournament and Zajac now has four goals and five points in three national postseason games — including back-to-back two-goal efforts. For the season, he is the Sioux's leading goal scorer with 19 and the team's second-leading overall scorer with 38 points.

For his rookie efforts, Zajac was named to the All-WCHA Rookie team and the All-East Regional team. None of which is a big surprise considering that he came to UND with the potential and credential that comes with being a first-round NHL pick (2004, 20th overall, New Jersey). Because of that Zajac was named preseason WCHA Rookie of the Year by the league's coaches before he ever played a college game.

And he welcomed the added attention.

"I just wanted to come in and contribute any way I could," Zajac said. "I wanted to put pressure on the coaches to play me in key situations — power play, penalty kill. I wanted to be out there, to be the type of player that the team would look to in big games like this.

"I think I'm a pretty good two-way center. I like to score goals but I also like to take care of our own end first. We have a lot of guys that can score goals so it's easy to focus on our own end too."

His coach agrees.

"He's a freshman by status but we have a lot of confidence in him," UND coach Dave Hakstol said. "He is as good a two-way center man, I believe, that there is in college hockey."

Which is why it was no surprise to see Zajac on the ice in the game's closing seconds as Minnesota had an extra attacker. In fact, it was Zajac who tied up three Gophers in the corner and eventually flipped the puck to center ice as the final horn sounded to put UND into Saturday's title game.

All of which was unthinkable about two months ago. In early February UND was swept at home by Denver to fall to 16-12-3 (10-11-1 in WCHA). At that point, the Sioux were more concerned about avoiding the road in the first round of the league playoffs than they were about even securing an NCAA bid.

"What turned us around is that the guys in the locker room believe in themselves," Hakstol said. "You can make a choice and they chose to keep plugging away and slowly we built some momentum and right now I think you have a real confident hockey team in the locker room and on the ice."

Because of that, the Fighting Sioux will be playing on the last night of the college hockey season as they try to secure their eighth national title and Hakstol tries to become the first rookie head coach to win a Division I national title.

Denver has won all three meetings against UND this season, including a 2-1 decision in the WCHA Final Five semifinals last month. That was the Sioux's last loss in a run that's been extended to 9-1-2 in their last 12 games.

"We overcame some adversity in the season and we've been on a roll here lately," Zajac said. "We're here so we might as well try and win it."

That would create quite a summer to remember in North Dakota.

David Albright is a senior editor at ESPN.com and can be reached at david.albright@espn3.com.

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