After traveling nearly 1,900 miles from Grand Forks you might as well feel at home. After all, that is how his team also felt with a 4-2 win over resilient Denver in front of a largely green clad Amalie Arena crowd of 18,037 that looked as though St. Patty’s Day arrived three weeks late.
The victory propels the Fighting Hawks into the championship game for the first time since 2005 when, ironically, they lost to Denver. This time around the opponent will be top-seeded Quinnipiac, which toppled Boston College in the first semifinal.
“Our fans are the greatest in the world and they travel anywhere we go,” said senior center Coltyn Sanderson. “Our fans travel everywhere with us and they support us everywhere we go and no matter what happens. We love them just as much as they love us.”
They were not loving things too much after Denver scored a pair of third-period goals to knot the score at 2-2. But that set the stage for a memorable finish when the Fighting Hawks’ CBS Line took over and decided the outcome. Nick Schmaltz’s backhander past Denver goalie Tanner Jaillet with 57 seconds remaining, a sequence that started with a Brock Boeser faceoff win set the UND faithful into a frenzy that could only be topped by a win in the championship game Saturday.
“He’s a fun player to play with,” said Schmaltz of Boeser. “We like to make plays, but we also like to play hard away from the puck. He’s been a huge piece of our line and hopefully we can keep it rolling Saturday night.”
Ah, Saturday night and the championship game. Since advancing to the ’05 final UND had lost its last six appearances in the Frozen Four semifinal. This year’s senior class experienced the last two such defeats at the hands of Minnesota in 2014 and Boston University last season. Enough was enough.
“(Advancing to the final) means a lot to us and it was what we kind of a big thing that we talked about in the room,” said Sanderson. “We talked about the last two years and the heartbreak of losing the semifinal game. We didn’t want to have to go through that again in the locker room. Tonight there was no doubt in our minds we were going to keep battling and clawing to get to Saturday night, and we did that.”
A big reason why UND is moving on to Saturday night is because of their relentless penalty kill, a unit that killed all 23 Denver power plays in the six games between the teams this season, including four Thursday night.
“The first thing is everybody buying into the system,” said coach Brad Berry, in his first season as UND bench boss after taking over for Dave Hakstol. “It is the shot-blocking mentality that we have. We had 27 blocks tonight and everybody is willing to get in front of a shot. The other part of it is that I cannot give enough credit to (assistant coach) Dane Jackson with what he has done with the penalty kill this year.”
Make no mistake that the failure to convert with the man advantage Thursday night, including two opportunities in an opening period that combined to yield a single shot on goal, is a large reason why the Fighting Hawks and not the Pioneers are advancing.
“I think the big thing is they won faceoffs,” said Denver coach Jim Montgomery. “And then the second thing, anytime there’s a scrum they came up with (the puck). They’re a really good penalty kill team.”
They will have to keep it up against Quinnipiac, which went 1 for 3 on the power play against Boston College and was humming along at an eye-opening 27.4% coming in, good for fourth nationally. Safe to say they may need more help from the crowd.
“We are pretty privileged to play in the program that we do and with that comes those fans and the support that we get,” said Schmaltz.
Who’s your choice to win the Frozen Final?
- North Dakota (62%, 21 Votes)
- Quinnipiac (38%, 13 Votes)
Total Voters: 34