Members of the North Dakota hockey program have seen their fair share of early Frozen Four exits over the past few years.
Two years ago in Minneapolis, the Fighting Hawks couldn't do anything but sit back and watch as Minnesota celebrated scoring with less than a second left to defeat UND 2-1 in the semifinals. The year after, the hometown team Boston University halted UND's comeback.
But North Dakota finally found itself on the other end as Nick Schmaltz netted the game-winning goal with 56.8 seconds left in regulation in the 4-2 win over rival Denver on Thursday night.
"We talked about in our room, guys coming back, talking about the last two years and kind of the heartbreak of losing that semifinal game. We didn't want to have to go through that again in that locker room," said senior Coltyn Sanderson, who added an assist in the second period. "Guys battled up tonight. Maybe it wasn't their best performance, but there's never any doubt in our minds that we were going to keep battling, clawing, trying to get to Saturday night."Much like the players did in the regional, the CBS line consisting of Schmaltz, senior Drake Caggiula and freshman Brock Boeser produced six of the team's nine points and collecting a plus/minus rating of +3.
Caggiula's career against Denver met a fitting end with his two goals in the first period, which extended his point game-streak to 12 straight games. Leading-scorer Boeser dished out a pair of assists instead of winding up on the scoreboard, to which his linemates appear to appreciate for the night.
"We always joke around and tell him to pass the puck because all he does is score," Caggiula said. "No, a lot of people don't realize just how good his vision is and he can make plays all over the ice, not just scoring goals but he can definitely find you in open areas."
While Caggiula's two goals put the Fighting Hawks ahead in the second period, momentum shifted in the third period in favor of the Pioneers. Denver pulled together a fiesty comeback behind its blue line, which accounted for both of the Pioneers' goals tie the game up at 2 apiece. But in the final minute, an unfortunate play resulted in an icing call on the Pioneers, which eventually set up the faceoff that led to Schmaltz' goal.
"You know, in between the second and the third we really wanted to just focus on playing Pioneer hockey. And, I mean, man, we came out and we played hard," Denver captain Grant Arnold said. "It's a tough play, it's a high-intensity situation and you want to get the puck out."
The Pioneers still had one final opportunity to force overtime but Cam Johnson, who finished with 21 saves, made a stellar save in the waning seconds. Johnson and UND's defense held Denver's Pacific Rim line to zero points on the night and killed every Denver power-play opportunity.
"Tonight the penalty kill did a great job. It won us the game. I think it's a shot blocking mentality we had. I think we had 27 blocks tonight. Tucker Poolman led the way for that. But everybody willing to get in front of a shot," UND coach Brad Berry said.
North Dakota capped off the night with an empty-netter as their fans erupted to their feet, not even thinking about the past results.
And now on Saturday, North Dakota senior class will set out to complete a goal created four years ago.
“I think when you first step on North Dakota campus, the first thing you talk about is winning a national championship,” Caggiula said. “For the first three years we came up short. As a senior class, we wanted to leave this program with a national championship. We’re one step closer there.”