Brad Berry spoke to the UND men’s hockey team in the locker room after the emotional rollercoaster 4-2 win over the Denver Pioneers on Thursday night in Amalie Arena. He repeated a phrase multiple times. “We will not be denied on Saturday… we will not be denied.” The fans felt it too. Quinnipiac was a formidable and deserving foe in the national title game, but this was UND’s time. We would not be denied.
Friday in Tampa was fairly uneventful for the party I traveled with. We were up for approximately 24 hours without sleep through Thursday night/Friday morning celebrating the green and white advancing to the title game. After catching up on a little sleep we headed to downtown Tampa to check out the Hobey Bar. This was a neat outdoor bar on the bay that had college hockey paraphernalia adorning the small structure that housed the bar.
A few drinks there and we headed over to the Marriott Waterside to get our seats for the Mike Richter award ceremony and live radio broadcast with ESPN hockey anchors John Buccigross and Barry Melrose. I have been open on with my disagreement of ESPN’s coverage of the Frozen Four. Specifically, I have criticized the commentating including issues with the play-by-play and anchors not pronouncing names correctly for the biggest college hockey games of the year. Aside from these issues, I have always been a huge fan of John Buccigross’ cheerleading of the sport on ESPN/Twitter/etc. I was glad also to find that him and Barry Melrose were very approachable and easy to talk to. You can tell Buccigross really cares about the sport and that allows me to put some personal opinions aside on the announcing team. They had Mike Richter himself present Thatcher Demko with the Mike Richter award which was somewhat anticlimactic but it was neat to see the hall of fame goaltender and get a picture with him. However, they did interview Pecknold and Coach Berry which was a good look at the coaches before the big game. After this event, we called it an early night and headed back to the hotel for some restless sleep before the most important hockey game for UND fans in the last decade.
Saturday morning presented another beautiful Tampa day but it did little to calm UND fans’ anxiety on the brink of the national title game. I was looking to calm down a bit so a few drinks before the game helped take the edge off of what was sure to be a nerve-wracking 2.5-3 hour game. We arrived at our seats and it was time for the team introductions and national anthem. It ended predictably with a “Home of the SIOUX!!” that sends chills up your spine. There had to be at least 9-10k UND fans that made the trip and I’m sure the players knew they had strong support behind them to get the job done.
The 1st period begin and it started to sink in to my head that this is actually happening, my legs immediately started to shake without control. There wasn’t enough liquor in the state to calm the nerves this game was sure to bring. The first chance came for UND 90 seconds in the game with Coltyn Sanderson entering the zone with Christian Wolanin in a partial 2 on 1. Sanderson passed over to Wolanin upon entering the zone and Wolanin passed it right back for a Sanderson one-timer. Garteig wasn’t fooled and sniffed out the give and go returning me to my seat.
Halfway through the 1st period an even up penalty is called leading to a 4-on-4 with some open ice for playmaking and UND took advantage. Brock Boeser brings the puck coast to coast hardly being touched into the zone then dishes it back to Gage Ausmus at the point. The captain finds a shooting lane and puts it on QU’s goalie who lets a rebound out to a waiting Shane Gersich. Gersich takes the rebound to his backhand and makes no mistake putting into the net. The UND fans go crazy, I think I may have blacked out I was so excited. I do remember thinking that getting the early lead was huge after hearing about Quinnipiac’s 1-3-1 defense that clogs up the neutral zone once they get a lead and I didn’t want UND to be chasing the whole game.
Tucker Poolman gets called for a tripping penalty on Sam Anas which was a concern as I know the Bobcats have a powerplay clipping along at an efficient 30% this year. Then, the phenom freshman Brock Boeser strikes again. An Austin Poganski drive to the net is broken up but QU’s goalie is forced to come out and play it. Boeser splits the defenders to race the goalie to the loose puck. Boeser reads his eyes and turns quickly to his left to block the puck off his hip. It bounces up in the air and Brock calmly taps it out of the air and settles it on the ice while where he matter of factly sends it into the open net at the dismay of Michael Garteig. Once this happens, I’m on cloud 9. I cheer so hard I think I might blow out my vocal chords. My reaction was fairly similar to this.
The 2nd period started with a shortened powerplay in which a golden opportunity was denied by Cam Johnson to maintain a 2-1 lead. Shortly thereafter Drake Caggiula missed a wide open net on the backhand after a puck bounced off the boards in front of the net. This was the theme of the 2nd period with missed opportunities and great goaltending on both sides of the ice. This resulted going into the 2nd intermission with a 2-1 lead and twenty minutes away from glory or despair for North Dakota and it’s fans. While I was confident, I was expecting a repeat of the semifinal game where we would experience a setback and have to answer. What transpired was so much better than I could have imagined.
One minute into the final frame, Brock Boeser and Nick Schmaltz came on the forecheck and Quinnipiac’s defense turned the puck over to the CBS line… bad mistake. Playing behind the net Schmaltz lifted the defender’s stick, as he so often has done this year, and circled along the wall. He found Drake Caggiula streaking to the net and before anyone could react the puck was on #9’s stick and being lifted under the bar. This set the tone for the period moving forward, there would be no comeback allowed.
Three minutes later Paul Ladue found Brock Boeser with a wonderful stretch pass through the neutral zone. Boeser, being caught by the defender, spun around to find a wide open Drake Caggiula. From there, Michael Garteig did not stand a chance. Drake Caggiula showed the killer instinct he’s shown in his 4 years playing for UND and made it 4-1. “Oh my God, this is happening” were my exact thoughts.
Then with 9 minutes left in the game… the dagger. After a good cycle the puck made it out to Gage Ausmus at the point. He put the puck on net and Garteig relented a juicy rebound that found Austin Poganski’s stick. He beat Garteig high glove before he could react and the celebration was on in the stands. I’ve never seen so many hands on heads in disbelief…including myself. We were up by 4 goals with 9 minutes to play but I still wasn’t relaxing.
The clock continued to tick down and I kept waiting for something to happen but it never came. Compared to the Denver game, this was so anticlimactic and easy. After all of these years, this is how the drought would end. From about 2 minutes left to go in the game to the final horn, the crowd noise level began to swell until it reached deafening noise as the time ticked down without even stopping to notice 0.6 on its way to North Dakota’s 8th national championship.
This was followed by one of the greatest sights I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing when UND’s bench emptied and players skated/skipped/jumped towards their goaltender throwing all of their apparel and gear into the air. I remember seeing Cam Johnson throw his mask in the air and hoping it wouldn’t land on someone. I remember watching the coaches embrace and congratulate each other. I remember feeling the burden of failure of past years lift off the shoulders of every player, fan and supporter of the North Dakota hockey team. The overtime title game loss to BC…forgotten. The Zach Parise early exit against Ferris St… vanished. The 2005 title game loss to Denver… buried. The 2006 through 2008 semifinal curse to Boston College…inconsequential. The New Hampshire game… moved on. The 2011 Michigan game…oh well. 0.6 against Minnesota…we’ll take our trophy. Eichel and BU…same answer.
My first coherent thought while watching the team celebrate was thinking of all the people that have contributed to the hockey program every year and not been rewarded with the ultimate prize that we were about to hoist. Zach Parise, Matt Greene, Drew Stafford, TJ Oshie, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Duncan, Travis Zajac, Chay Genoway, Matt Frattin, Andrew McWilliam, Danny Kristo, Aaron Dell, Stephane Pattyn, Zane McIntyre, Jordan Schmaltz, Coach Dave Hakstol and so many otheres. None of them were present to raise that trophy but it also wouldn’t have become a reality without the foundation and culture they instilled in this program.
Aside from taking a few pictures all I could do was absorb the celebration and try to come to grips with all of it. Another thing that I thought of was this tweet. I sent it in December of this season and it said enjoy the ride. For as much talk about there is about the ultimate goal of winning a national championship, I hope that fans were able to realize what they were seeing was special. We saw countless highlight reel goals from the CBS line. We saw Coltyn Sanderson prove he was a huge part of the team and could score big goals. We witnessed a thorough domination of Denver by winning by scores of 5-1 and 4-0. We saw UND win all 4 regular season games against Duluth, including 2 shutouts in Amsoil Arena. We saw a sweep of UNO in Omaha. We saw a sweep of Western Michigan to raise the Penrose Cup for the 2nd straight year. Then of course we saw the wins against Northeastern, Michigan, Denver, and Quinnipiac. Sometimes the focus is so much on one final goal that fans forget to enjoy what we are watching on a weekly basis. So I’ll say it to fans this year and in the years to come…Enjoy the ride, I know I did.
Thanks for reading and another great season with the best fans in the country. Here’s to doing it all again next year. I leave you with some of my pictures of the celebration from Tampa…