Photo Credit: Sasha Kandrach
In an altogether meaningless NCHC third-place game for NCAA Tournament purposes, the No. 6 University of Denver Pioneers and the No. 1 University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks skated to a 1-1 tie at the Target Center. Thanks to the tie, Denver will likely stay at #6 in the PairWise Rankings while North Dakota will finish no worse than #3.
The game started slowly for both teams. The Pios and Hawks seemed to allow for an early feeling-out process while avoiding injury heading into next week’s first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Despite the early sluggish play by both teams, North Dakota broke the scoreless tie 6:09 into the opening period. Drake Caggiula had the puck below the goal line when he found fellow CBS linemate Nick Schmaltz in front of the net. Schmaltz shot the puck immediately and DU goalie Evan Cowley was there for the save initially, but the puck snuck past his right pad and over the goal line. 1-0 Hawks.
As soon as North Dakota scored, it seemed like both teams stopped trying to generate anything offensively. Though there were plenty of post-whistle shoves and punches, during play, neither team tried very hard to generate any real offensive momentum.
During the boring stalemate, North Dakota generated most of the quality scoring chances. For much of the rest of the first period and all of the second period, Denver seemed content to play, in essence, hockey’s equivalent of prevent defense. That strategy nearly backfired a number of times as 4 UND shot attempts found iron and stayed out of the net throughout the game.
The second period saw most of North Dakota’s best offensive chances. Throughout the middle frame, the Hawks were able to generate a number of scoring chances on the rush, but Cowley stood tall and kept the puck out of the back of the net. Once North Dakota was forced to set up their offense in the zone, Denver consistently kept all UND shot attempts to the outside.
“We have two good goalies,” DU head coach Jim Montgomery said. “Every time Evan’s been called upon, he’s been really good for us. We needed to get him a game, cause you never know.”
By the time the third period arrived, fans (and some players it seemed) of both teams were ready for the third-place game to end. The game was dragging on and the Pioneers and Fighting Hawks were more focused on avoiding injury than winning a hockey game.
Just when most thought the final was going to be 1-0 in favor of North Dakota, the Pacific Rim Line came through with a clutch goal at the 13:21 mark of the regulation period. Dylan Gambrell found Trevor Moore down below the net while Danton Heinen slowly started crashing toward the net front. Moore saw Heinen, fed a great pass to him, and Heinen jammed the puck home past UND goalie Cam Johnson to tie the game at 1.
“I think it says a lot about our character,” alternate captain Nolan Zajac said. “It’s not easy to get up for these kind of games when you’re not in the championship, but our team had the character to come out and put forth a better effort.”
For the rest of the game, Denver played with more urgency than they had all game. DU very nearly scored another a few times, but Johnson recovered from Heinen’s goal and kept the puck out of the back of the net.
“I thought the last fifteen minutes, we took over the game,” Montgomery said. “It really adds to our depth when we have three guys who haven’t played in twelve games and they actually handled themselves really well.”
In the 5 minute 5×5 overtime, Denver held the puck in North Dakota’s zone for the first 2:45. They generated chance after chance, their passes were crisp, and they forced North Dakota’s defense to scramble to keep Denver from finding the back of the net.
North Dakota finally cleared the zone halfway through overtime, but despite getting two shots on goal, they never threatened to end the game. As a result, the third place game between the heated rivals ended in a tie, which was probably a deserving result given how disinterested both teams were in playing this game.
Interestingly, DU scratched five regulars including captain Grant Arnold and alternate captains Gabe Levin and Will Butcher. Nolan Zajac was the only Pioneer with a “letter” that dressed for Denver. This gave players like Rudy Junda, Evan Ritt, Logan O’Connor, Brad Hawkinson, and Sean Mostrom a chance to see some ice time in a playoff atmosphere.
“I was really proud of them and their defensive details, especially,” Montgomery said.
In the end, Denver and North Dakota were both already virtually assured of their positioning in the the NCAA Tournament, Fighting Hawks a #1 seed and Pioneers a #2 and regardless of the result, this game would not have changed that. Both teams knew that and their performance reflected it.
“I don’t know if [the tie] is fitting,” Montgomery said. “It would have been more fitting if DU had won it.”
This third-place game will certainly raise some questions regarding the relevance of consolation games in college hockey, but this year, they may as well have not played it.
All NCAA Tournament teams will learn of their seeding and regional locations tomorrow (Sunday) on the College Hockey Selection Show at 10 AM Mountain Time. The show will be televised on ESPNU.
The top lines for both teams (CBS for North Dakota, Pacific Rim for DU) accounted for all of the points during the game; North Dakota outshot Denver 27-17; Both teams had 3 penalties for 6 PIM; Evan Cowley was the 1st star of the game while Heinen picked up 3rd star honors.