Following the disappointment of losing in Frozen Four semifinals the last two seasons, a bumper crop of freshmen has played a huge role in getting North Dakota over what had grown into a considerable hump and into the championship game.
The Fighting Hawks are now on the doorstep on NCAA glory as they take on top-seeded Quinnipiac at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Saturday night.
It is a class that was well aware of the task at hand entering this season as the returning seniors had no interest in scoring a natural hat trick of semifinal setbacks. Rather, the message from the team’s veterans from the get-go was to work hard, work effectively and work toward taking the program to the final night of the college hockey season.
Not only was the message delivered efficiently and effectively, but a group of five freshmen, led by forward and NCHC Rookie of the Year Brock Boeser, have more than pulled their weight.
“The seniors helped us come together and transition into college hockey,” said the 23rd overall pick of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks in 2015, who set up the game-winning goal in Thursday night’s 4-2 semifinal verdict over Denver. “Obviously we have a lot of freshmen and we have been able to play a big role throughout the season. It is a good feeling for all of us freshmen to help the seniors to get to the championship game.”
One of those seniors is Coltyn Sanderson, a role player who laced up the skates only nine times in three seasons before becoming a key cog on the Fighting Hawks’ third line this season.
“I think it is pretty easy to tell that once you come into this program what is expected of you,” said Sanderson, the NCHC’s nominee for the Hockey Commissioners Association unsung hero award. “With us having such a big freshmen class it was important for the older guys and the team leaders to bring them along and get them up to speed to achieve our goals. They have been fantastic all season and we are going to need them to be big again on Saturday as well.”
Playing big has not been a problem. In addition to Boeser, who had two assists in the semifinal giving him 56 points to tie for third nationally, UND has a combined 22 goals from fellow freshmen forwards Rhett Gardner (10), Shane Gersich (8) and Joel Janatuinen (4).
Then there has been the diligent play on the blue line from Hayden Shaw, who checks in at a plus-14 and has even chipped in with a pair of game-winning goals.
“From the start they reiterated that it is a long season for us and at any point in the season things can turn quickly,” he said of the seniors’ message. “They did a great job of taking all of us under their wings. They are such an unbelievable leadership group.”
It is a small group, a trio actually, of seniors who will play their final game for the Fighting Hawks on Saturday night. In addition to Sanderson, forwards Drake Caggiula and Bryn Chyzyk are hoping to bow out with a victory lap.
Regardless of the outcome against Quinnipiac it has been a rewarding experience for the younger players to assume a large role in bringing UND to this point, but especially seeing the seniors get this far.
“It is awesome to be a part of,” said Shaw. “The older guys had a couple of heartbreaks and to take it one more step this year was our goal.”
Semifinal setbacks to Minnesota in Philadelphia in 2014 and Boston University in Beantown last year stung for sure whether a player is a newbie or in his final year with the program.
“When you first step on the North Dakota campus the first thing you talk about is winning a national championship,” he said Thursday night. “For (the seniors’) first three years we came up short. As a senior class we want to leave this program with a national championship. We’re one step closer.”
It is a step Janatuinen is eager to help the team ascend.
“It means a lot for us to help get the seniors to the point,” he said. “They have helped us a lot along the way. From the first day they were showing us the ropes and to get to the championship game is special for the whole team, especially for the seniors.”