TAMPA, Fla. — North Dakota and Denver form one of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s great rivalries. Thursday’s Frozen Four semifinal was the sixth time the rivals have faced each other this season.
Each team won two at home and then played to a 1–1 tie in the third place game of the NCHC tournament. It was fitting, then, that they produced a nail-bitter on Thursday.
The Fighting Hawks had a 2–0 lead heading into the third period, but Denver inched back in the final period to tie the game at 2–2.
But it was Nick Schmaltz who scored with 56.8 seconds left to give North Dakota a 3–2 lead. The Fighting Hawks would tally one more with an empty-net goal to win 4–2.
1. North Dakota certainly has a lot of fans
Or, at least, they travel well.
Amalie Arena exploded like a North Dakota home game when Schmaltz scored. The Fighting Hawks held the lead until the final buzzer sounded, punching their ticket to the national championship.
The fan presence was notable. It was hard to tell where the Denver section was because the arena was covered in North Dakota green. Outside, in the plaza, hours before the early game between Boston College and Quinnipiac, merchandise tents were sold out of Fighting Hawks hats and shirts, while the other teams’ were plentifully stocked.
“Our fans are the greatest in the world. They travel anywhere we go,” said senior Drake Caggiula. “It’s certainly a lot easier playing in an atmosphere where it’s pretty much a home ice advantage.”
When North Dakota meets Quinnipiac in the national championship on Saturday, Quinnipiac fans and their feisty pep band may have a tough time being heard over the roar. Quinnipiac’s total undergraduate enrollment of 6,553 might have been outnumbered by North Dakota fans inside the arena.
2. Drake Caggiula is a catch and the “CBS” line is crazy good
A part of the vaunted “CBS” line, Drake Caggiula, an undrafted winger, has been an offensive dynamo for the Fighting Hawks. Potting two goals and an assist Thursday — his 47th, 48th and 49th points of the season — it’s hard to imagine how he went un-drafted.
Both of his goals were highlight-reel worthy. A beautiful breakaway got things going, and he followed that up with an absolute snipe, picking off a bad Trevor Moore pass and going upper corner over goaltender Tanner Jaillet’s glove.
Caggiula doesn’t just score though. When Trevor Olson took a penalty late in the third, Caggiula was out there on the penalty kill. He’s a utility knife that could power the Fighting Hawks to a title.
“We definitely take pride in our penalty kill,” Caggiula said. “It’s a huge part of our game.”
Every member of the “CBS” line, Caggiula, Brock Boeser, and Schmaltz, was lethal. When they’re clicking, the rink looks Olympic-sized with the amount of space they’re capable of creating. They produced the three North Dakota goals that weren’t the empty-net dagger.
If Quinnipiac is going to take the national championship, the “CBS” line has to be shut down.
3. Denver may have deserved a better fate
Denver played a very good game, and although the shots were even at 23 when the rink emptied, Denver put a lot of rubber toward the net.
In fact, Denver generated 59.8% of all shot attempts in the game. They also had the edge in Grade-A chances, taking 54.5% of those.
While they out-possessed North Dakota, the difference wound up being not only the opportunistic “CBS” line, but Hawks goaltender Cam Johnson. He was outstanding, recording 21 saves. Denver had a lot scoring chances and Johnson had a sprawling goal line answer for them over and over.
In fact, Denver only really beat Johnson once. The goal by Pioneers defenseman Matt VanVoorhis took an awkward deflection off a North Dakota defenseman’s stick and found the back of the net.
“It feels unbelievable,” said Johnson. “North Dakota, as a whole, has kind of struggled in the Final Four, so it’s nice to break down that semifinal wall and we have one more wall to break down.”
It was far from a perfect game for the Fighting Hawks, but the “CBS” line and Johnson have the ability to steal games, even when the opposition may have been better.