You haven’t heard from me in a while in blog form but I have made my thoughts known in 140 characters or less via my twitter handle @UofHockeyBlog. However, my thoughts/feelings/emotions from my trip last weekend to Tampa, FL to watch the University of North Dakota win the national championship cannot be consolidated for consumption on Twitter so here I am with my final installment for the 2015-2016 season and wow… what a season it has been.
My wife and I decided the Monday after the regionals that we needed to be in Tampa for the Frozen Four. The previous 2 years we had tried to make the Philadelphia and Boston Frozen Four, but for whatever reason we didn’t pull the trigger. However, this year felt different. I felt like we would be missing out if we didn’t make it to Tampa. This team felt like it had the makeup to win it all. They routed the “hottest team in the country” Northeastern 6-2 and took it to the Hobey-laden Michigan team to advance. This team had the makeup to go the distance and we had to be there.
As we arrived in Tampa, we knew that we were already sold on a Florida Frozen Four. Walking around in April with shorts and a jersey on felt like a good reward for all of the frozen walks endured in dark January nights to The Ralph Engelstad Arena. Another thing that we loved was the city of Tampa embracing the event. From our pilot saying good luck to UND hockey to all of the hotel employees’ awareness of the hockey event. It makes a huge difference for a city to make a statement that they’re happy you’re there and show an appreciation for the business the fans bring the city. Ferg’s Live was the official pre and post game party locale for all Sioux fans and they embraced it. Little things from the Frozen Four banners and the waitresses having the interlocking ND temporary tattoos make a difference. Even the $15 beer prices just outside Amalie Arena’s entrance were forgiven because of the weather and atmosphere provided by Tampa. At the end of the weekend, all five people in my party agreed we would love for Tampa to become a regular Frozen Four stop(we actually said we would love it there every year).
To top it all off, the hockey turned out to be pretty damn good too. The first game between Quinnipiac and Boston College was a bit of a sleeper while Quinnipiac seemed to quell any skill advantage BC might have until the 3rd period. Then, Boston College seemed to wake up and made a great push and would’ve tied the game at 3 if not for a great save at the buzzer by Michael Garteig. So we knew Quinnipiac would be in their 2nd ever title game with only 3 losses thus far on the season and now it was time for the heavyweight bout.
I don’t know if nervous or anxious quite encapsulates my attitude going into this game but I was on the edge of my seat. We owed Denver a Frozen Four loss after the 2005 title game and I really wanted my NCHC bragging rights for the entire next season. Later, Brad Berry stated that this felt like the title game to him. The game started out with good action both ways punctuated by Cam Johnson making a save from his back. Denver had a chance to take the early lead with 2 penalties in the first frame but failed to capitalize on either chance resulting in a 0-0 tie going into the 1st intermission. North Dakota was playing well but needed to capitalize on the chances.
Then a minute into the 2nd frame Coltyn Sanderson made a stretch pass to Boeser, who then proceeded to saucer pass to a streaking Drake Caggiula left all alone. Number 9 made no mistake in beating Denver goalie Tanner Jalliet blocker side and we went crazy up in section 312. Five minutes later, a seemingly innocent scrum turned deadly as Caggiula stripped Trevor Moore of the puck walked below the dot and sniped a short side wrist shot off the near post and in. Just like that, North Dakota had a 2-0 lead in a Frozen Four and a flicker of a title game appearance flashed in UND fans’ minds. Despite a third straight powerplay awarded to the Pioneers, the score stayed at 2-0 to end the 2nd period. I immediately thought of the stat regarding UND being undefeated in the past 3 years with a 3rd period lead but I knew this would be the toughest of all those previous 70+ games to finish off.
In the 3rd, Denver came out with a purpose and UND looked to be a bit on its’ heels. Then, a faceoff in UND’s defensive zone 3 minutes into the final frame. Rhett Gardner gets tossed leaving Sanderson to take the draw. Right before the puck was dropped, I motioned to my friend that Will Butcher had crept down into an aggressive position and said ‘They have to watch him’. Sure enough, Denver won the faceoff back to Butcher and he fired a shot over Cam Johnson’s blocker and it was a 1 goal game. I reminded myself that this team has been through this before and was resilient enough to recover. Then, 9 minutes away from a berth in the national title game Matt VanVoorhis(a Grand Forks native) threw a cross crease pass that defenseman Gage Ausmus blocked but deflected underneath Cam Johnson’s pads and into the back of the net.
You could hear and feel the sigh from the 7,000+ UND fans in Amalie Arena. Not again… not this year. Although it only tied the game, it almost felt like a game-winner for DU because of the lead that evaporated as if it never existed. I didn’t say a word or even react aside from putting my head in my hands. This was supposed to be our year like so many years since 2000. Then, Denver came down the ice a minute later with a clean 2 on 1. I guarantee every UND fans thoughts at that time were something along the lines of “Here we go…” but the grimacing UND fans were not dealt a death blow when the play was broken up.
I hate to admit it but the thought went through my head was along the lines of “I don’t know if I’ll leave my hotel for the rest of the weekend if this doesn’t go our way”. Trevor Olson took a poor penalty with 6 minutes left and it seemed as this again could be the end. However, UND persevered and killed it off. The time continued to tick down seemingly destined for a sudden death overtime. Then, the biggest play in the last decade and a half in UND hockey. The Pioneers iced the puck and allowed the famed CBS line to get on the ice for one last crack at finishing the game in regulation. Brock uncharacteristically was made to take the faceoff. He won it back to Caggiula whose shot was blocked and ended up on Boeser’s stick. Brock shuffled it under a Denver defender to Nick Schmaltz in front of Denver’s goalie. Then the shot heard round Grand Forks came off #8’s backhand and into a wide open net while going across the crease. Jubilation and relief swept through the green and white faithful but there was still 50 seconds left to finish the job, plenty of time left for the Pios to even it up again.
But, Rhett Gardner found a puck in his defensive zone and flipped it down the ice and into the vacated DU net to send UND to the title game for the 1st time in 11 years. The ghosts of the Frozen Four had not gone away easily but finally we had made the title game. Here’s a video of that moment from our vantage point. From there the party was on in the arena and it carried over to Ferg’s Live bar across the street. UND fans all seemed to be floating with all of the memories of previous Frozen Four semifinal losses off their shoulders and out of their minds. All of the attendees clad in green and white truly appreciated the win and national title game berth. Most of the people I spoke to were just so relieved and happy to experience a Friday and Saturday Frozen Four without a devastating loss hanging over their head. UND was going to play for the national title game and there was a general feeling among the players and fans that they would not be denied.
Next up is the title game vs. Quinnipiac…