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.
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
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
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 email@example.com.