If jubilation was the word I used to describe last weekend, I can’t think of a suitable phrase for the moment Connor Gaarder stuffed a Paul Ladue rebound through CJ Motte’s five-hole sending the Sioux to the Frozen Four in Philadelphia. Possibly pandemonium, ecstasy, and relief combined would best describe my feelings of North Dakota’s 2-1 double overtime win against the Ferris State Bulldogs. As Gaarder so eloquently put it “…rebound came right to me and I kinda slid ‘er in there”. As a walk-on for a team that holds 14 draft picks the odds were against Connor getting the game winner but odds and favorites are not something this team seems to care about and continues to defy.
“Nobody expects them to be here. Some people say they backed in, but I don’t care how they got here. Whether they backed in, flew over the top or came out from underneath they are a hard team to beat and they’re a hard team to play.” That was UND’s radio broadcaster, Tim Hennessey, almost giddy while, at the same time, seeming to be at a loss for words after North Dakota’s win. The superb play-by-play radio broadcaster wasn’t the only person besides themselves with joy after the epic double overtime battle between UND and Ferris State came to a dramatic conclusion. However, the point he makes while attempting to encapsulate the game is a valid one. This team finds ways to win games and prolong their season, which has inevitably lead them to the Frozen Four and two wins away from the pinnacle of the college hockey world. That ability to endure shifts, periods, and games that might not necessarily be going their way will prove to be useful moving forward in the pursuit of an NCAA title.
In comparing this team to previous ones that have reached the Frozen Four under Hakstol’s tenure, they don’t seem to have a whole lot in common. Each of those teams had multiple players that you knew would go on to have significant NHL careers and succeed at the next level. This team seems to be slightly different, as it does not have a DOT line(Duncan, Oshie, Toews), a Pony Express, or a 36 goal scorer in Matt Frattin. What they may lack in the form of a Hobey candidate, they make up for in guts. Twice last weekend, they faced a situation that lesser teams would’ve broken under. The Wisconsin tying goal with halfway through the 3rd period of Friday night’s game might seem like it wasn’t the Sioux’s year but they persevered. Also, the 3rd period onslaught from Ferris State attempting to get the go-ahead goal gave me flashbacks to the 2013 regional final in which Yale took a Frozen Four berth out of UND’s grip. This team relinquished no such lead and I think you can look to the man between the pipes for a huge reason for this.
No matter how crazy the scramble in front of the net, Gothberg seemed poised and ready for any puck that was going to be thrown at him. I feel as I cannot throw enough praise our goaltender’s way without giving the impression that he is the second coming of Ed Belfour. If the Sioux are going to bring that 8th national championship back to Ralph Engelstad Arena, make no mistake, it will be on the back of #31. If you want a positive stat to point to for UND’s chances in the Frozen Four, Zane hasn’t lost an NCAA tournament game in his career and is coming off a career-high 44 saves.
Despite letting in a softer wrist shot from inside the blue line to give Ferris State the 1-0 lead in the 2nd period, I had a feeling that Zane was going to shut it down from there on out as he often does. That goal was followed 3 minutes later by a critical tip-in goal by Stephane Pattyn from a Paul Ladue slap shot to break the seal CJ Motte seemed to hold on the net. The 3rd period and much of the overtime showed Ferris State bringing everything to Zane Gothberg’s doorstep and continually coming up empty.
Per a Rocco Grimaldi interview, between the 1st and 2nd overtime UND teammates told Connor Gaarder to go be a hero and he must’ve taken it to heart. It was apparent from the drop of the puck in the second overtime that the Sioux were back on their toes and it paid off quickly with a Paul Ladue slap shot that bounced off the pads of Motte to Gaarder. Connor held the puck just long enough to open the goaltender’s leg and slid the puck into the back of the net, sending North Dakota to its 20th Frozen Four in program history. And now, onto Philadelphia….