Photo Credit: John Leyba, The Denver Post
In the sixth and final meeting of the season between archrivals Denver and North Dakota in the Frozen Four, North Dakota emerged with a close, hard-fought 4-2 victory. After going 2-2-1 in the five previous matchups, anything other than a close game would have been a surprise.
The teams played to a scoreless, though entertaining stalemate in the opening period. Despite two of the most talented lines in the country opposing each other, neither team was able to break through. Both teams generated countless odd-man rushes for the first twenty minutes, but by the end of the opening period, the game remained scoreless and shots on goal were tied at two.
“I said it after the first period, I said it to our staff, I think both teams had more odd-man rushes than shots on net,” DU head coach Jim Montgomery said. “[It was] surprising with with the skill level that there weren’t more goals because of it.”
North Dakota came out in the second period and punched DU in the mouth. The Fighting Hawks had the Pioneers on their heels throughout the middle frame. Thanks to this start, it didn’t take long for UND to strike first.
After a good, early possession for DU, North Dakota emerged on a 2-on-1 rush with two-thirds of the vaunted CBS Line leading the way. Brock Boeser entered the zone, passed across the slot past an outstretched DU stick to Drake Caggiula where he shot the puck past DU goalie Tanner Jaillet’s outstretched blocker to give North Dakota the 1-0 lead.
Barely five minutes later, Caggiula struck again. While DU was attempting to break out, Caggiula read the pass in the corner and stole the puck. He immediately strode toward Jaillet and shot the puck high, short side past Jaillet’s head to double the lead.
North Dakota continued to dominate play after the goal, but in the second half of the second period, the tide began to shift to DU’s end. They continued skating hard and putting pucks on net. In the last five minutes alone, Denver had three or four chances that miraculously stayed out of the net. To say UND goaltender Cam Johnson got most of the bounces tonight would be an understatement.
DU picked up right where they left off in the third period. They played hard and kept working to establish a good presence in front of the net. At the 2:50 mark, the effort finally paid off when Will Butcher buried a shot top left off the faceoff to pull Denver back within one.
Eight minutes later, Denver got a lucky bounce of their own down low. Matt VanVoorhis entered the zone, skated the puck down low, and immediately looked to center the puck. He passed the puck into the slot, where North Dakota’s Gage Ausmus was diving to block the pass. The puck deflected off of his stick, under Johnson, and into the back of the net. All of a sudden, what once looked like a lost cause for DU was a potential Frozen Four victory.
“We’re never going to give up no matter what the score is,” Denver captain Grant Arnold said. “It could have been 5-0 in the third, we would have come out with a ton of fire regardless. That’s just Denver hockey.”
Throughout much of the rest of the period, DU and UND traded scoring chances. Denver came close to breaking the tie time after time, but the puck just wasn’t finding its way past Johnson.
At the 13:35 mark of the period, Denver had its fourth power play chance of the night after Trevor Olson was caught elbowing. Like they did for many of the other 22 fruitless power plays against North Dakota, Denver couldn’t manage to tally a shot on goal.
“That was our worst power play tonight, to be honest with you,” Will Butcher said. “I made a crappy pass over to Trevor, didn’t seem like it was clicking too much.”
The lack of a power play goal came back to haunt the Pios. At the 19:03 mark, after DU inexplicably iced the puck, Caggiula won the ensuing faceoff. Boeser sent the puck at the net where it squeezed free to Jaillet’s right, and Nick Schmaltz backhanded the puck into the open net to regain the lead for the Hawks.
North Dakota added an empty-net goal with less than two seconds left to seal the victory and earn a berth in the National Championship game for the first time since losing to Denver in 2005.
“The organization we play for is top-notch,” Butcher added. “It’s the best, I think, and it’s an honor to put on this sweater every time I wear it.”