TAMPA- And then there were two.
No. 1 overall seed Quinnipiac and No. 3 seed North Dakota, teams that traded the top spots in the national polls and PairWise rankings all season long, will square off in the Frozen Four championship.
"It's a great story line, obviously. Again, there could be any number of teams here playing in this final game." UND head coach Brad Berry said. "We have the saying: Believe it, earn it, raise it. Well, we need the final part of that saying, and, again, we want to make it happen tomorrow."
The championship marks the fourth meeting between the programs and comes just a year after the Fighting Hawks defeated the Bobcats 4-1 in the NCAA tournament last season.
"We're definitely hoping for a different outcome. We thought we played well against them last time," Quinnipiac captain Soren Jonzzon said Friday. "They played well too. And their goalie was fantastic, and we're excited to have the chance hopefully to take it to them this time."
Here are five storylines to watch when the Bobcats and Fighting Hawks face off on Saturday at 8 p.m on ESPN2.
1. UND's penalty kill v. Quinnipiac's power play
Quinnipiac's penalty kill may have gotten them to the title game tomorrow night, but it is the power play that has carried the Bobcats all season. The program's 46 power play goals rank third nationally and Landon Smith's game-winning goal in the second period came off one of Quinnipiac's three PP chances.
"I think for our power play it's, again, about us against a P.K. as good as North Dakota's or anyone we play that has a good one, it is about us realizing that we are going to fail probably 70 percent of the time. That's okay," Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold said. "We have to take what they're going to give us and be able to adapt."
North Dakota's penalty kill in the semifinals against Denver was as effective as it has been all season, blocking shot after shot and holding the Pioneers to 0-for-4 on the power play.
A similar production output will be important for the Fighting Hawks, especially against natural PP scorers Sam Anas and Travis St. Denis.
"We pride ourselves on our penalty kill. I think we blocked something like 30 shots last night," UND defenseman Troy Stecher said. So guys were willing to put their body on the line for the betterment of their team, and that's important this time of the year."
2. Containing North Dakota's CBS lineThe biggest key defensively for Quinnipiac will be how they approach the Fighting Hawks' top line of Drake Caggiula, Brock Boeser and Nick Schmaltz, which accounted for six points last night including Schmaltz' game-winner. Caggiula enters the championship on a 12-game point streak after notching a pair of goals last night.
"I think they present challenges like Harvard's top line and Boston College top line presents to us. Speed, size, skill," QU defenseman Devon Toews said. "We've got to play our game and get in their space and take away their time and space and we'll be fine."
3. Goaltending battle in between the pipes
Not to be overlooked, the play by both goaltenders came up huge in the final moments of both semifinals match. Quinnipiac's Michael Garteig pulled together one of his best performances all season, stopping 34 shots faced and snatching a pair of glove saves to secure the win.
On the other end, North Dakota's Cam Johnson showed off incredible composure for a sophomore, despite giving up two game-tying goals in the third. Coach Berry said it fits perfectly with Johnson's relaxed nature, going back to the goalie's USHL days.
"He would let a goal in early in the game or partway through the game, and we always watched to see what's a goaltender's body language or how does he react after a goal," Berry said. "He was grounded. He was focused. He was dialed in."
UND's home at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks may be thousand of miles away, but the sea of green on Thursday night at Amalie Arena wasn't any indication. North Dakota fans crowded into Amalie Arena for the semifinal and more are expected to travel down for the title game on Saturday.
"The arena yesterday was packed with kelly green. The amount of support we have goes a long way, and we want to win for every individual that cares about our program," Stecher said.
The Fighting Hawks aren't the only fanbase expected to draw a large crowd. The Quinnipiac crowd made its voice heard too in the semifinal against Boston College, and the players are eager to see the support from the Bobcat faithful.
"If you watched our game, I think our fans are pretty loud, too," Toews said. "So I think they're going to have fun going at each other and cheering loud. So it will be fun to see who is louder."
5. Series of firsts
No matter who comes out on top tomorrow night, some history will be made for either program. Quinnipiac has never captured a national championship, the closest chance coming in 2013 with a loss to Yale in the title game.
The recent trend is in favor of the Bobcats as four of the past five national champions have captured their first ever in school history, something that Quinnipiac coach Pecknold said has been great for the sport.
"I think college hockey is in a great place right now. I think it's phenomenal. We've got a lot of parity. A lot of new teams that are doing really well. And you can see by the results."
As for North Dakota, the first year under Brad Berry could not have gone any better. His program's 32 regular-season wins were the most by any North Dakota team under a first-year head coach and Berry has the chance to become the first to also win a national championship in his head coaching debut for North Dakota.
"We wouldn't want to play for any other coach than Coach Berry," Stecher said. "He's really emphasized a lot about relationships. You walk into the rink, and everyone's a best friend with each other. And the coaching staff is right there with us, interacting with us every day. That goes a long way. We want to play hard for the coaching staff and make them proud and play hard for each other as well. "