UND Scores Five in Win vs. Michigan, Reaches Frozen Four
Courtesy of UNDSports.com
CINCINNATI – Prior to Saturday night’s NCAA Midwest Regional championship against Michigan, North Dakota head coach Brad Berry wrote three adjectives on the locker room whiteboard: hungry, focused, and committed.
His Fighting Hawks were all of those tonight in an all-out blitz of Big Ten tournament champion Michigan. North Dakota threw a season-high 49 shots on goal, including a single-period-high 24 in the first period, en route to a 5-2 victory and a third consecutive berth in the NCAA Frozen Four and eighth in the last 12 years.
It was an impressive offensive performance for the Fighting Hawks, who were facing the nation’s highest-scoring team that came in averaging nearly five goals a game. It was UND that asserted itself in the offensive zone from start to finish, with a first-period goal by senior Drake Caggiula, a second-period goal by Luke Johnson (his fifth straight NCAA playoff game with a goal), and third-period tallies by Rhett Gardner, Coltyn Sandreson and Paul LaDue.
When the Wolverines were able to counter-punch, tournament MVP Cam Johnson was equal to the task in a 25-save performance that was, at times, spectacular.
“It’s very humbling,” said Berry of the Frozen Four berth in his first year as head coach. “We’re grateful to punch our ticket to Tampa. It doesn’t come easy or lightly. It’s a process that we had to go through since the beginning of the season. Our guys believed. It’s team-first and I think you witnessed that this weekend.”
UND peppered Michigan goalie Steve Racine early on often, staking a 24-8 edge in first-period shots on goal. Racine stood tall for virtually the entire period until senior Drake Caggiula chased and banged home his own rebound with just 1:06 left in the first period.
J.T. Compher pulled Michigan even 5:33 into the second period with his first of two goals, but Luke Johnson took advantage of a Compher turnover in the final minute of the period to put UND back on top.
However, Compher struck again midway through the power play, this time midway through the third period, to once again tie the game. North Dakota, with its zone time and shots-on-goal dominance, found itself staring down the barrel of a 2-2 game in the final half of the third period.
“Our guys stayed with it. There was a plan,” said Berry. “We didn’t deviate from our structure and we stayed with it. That’s been kind of the strength of our team this year is believing in what we do and finding a way to get that first goal. There was no panic. Our guys believed in themselves and that’s why it’s a special group.”
Has it has done all year long, UND found a way. First, it was Rhett Gardner deflecting a Paul LaDue point shot past Racine with 7:57 remaining. Then senior Coltyn Sanderson did the same on a Tucker Poolman shot just 1:14 later. Two goals from lines other than North Dakota’s vaunted “CBS” line, and UND held a two-goal lead with 6 minutes remaining.
Ladue sealed the regional championship with an empty-netter from his own zone with 1:41 remaining.
“We’re very excited to move on to Tampa,” said Berry. “The players to the right of me and the rest of them in the locker room played extremely hard this weekend, played the right way, and found a way—[we] tried to check more boxes off that we had for goals.”
Johnson, despite UND’s decisive shots advantage in the first period, played a critical role in the opening frame. He only faced eight Michigan shots, but several were of the Grade A variety.
“Those are the toughest games to play in, when you’re not seeing a bunch of [shots on goal], then they come down have a few good opportunities — especially when we have a lot of pressure on their guys,” said Johnson. “You have to stay mentally dialed in, and be ready for whatever comes my way.”
Johnson, a Troy, Mich., native, improved to 7-0-0 this season against Michigan-based teams, with a 1.53 goals against average and .947 save percentage.
“It felt nice. I was excited to play them and have a lot of good buddies on that team,” said Johnson. “It’s always fun playing against your buddies that you grew up with. My best friend growing up from down that street was on that team, so it was pretty neat beating him. Overall, I’d say it was good. I’m glad the boys played well in front of them.”
Now, UND turns its sights on trying to win an elusive eighth national championship. UND has gone to seven Frozen Fours over the previous 11 years, coming up empty in each and failing to win a semifinal game in the last six.
“We had one goal in mind coming into the season, which was to win a national championship,” said junior captain Gage Ausmus. “So obviously we have our minds on that first game down in Tampa, and we’re going to be focused on that in the next couple of weeks.”
Notes: Johnson was joined on the all-tournament team by Caggiula, Luke Johnson and sophomore defenseman Tucker Pooolman … UND has now won 18 of its last 22 NCAA regional games (.818) dating back to 2004-05. The team’s junior class has never lost (6-0-0) a regional game … Caggiula extended his career-long point streak to 11 games, while Boeser (10 games) and Nick Schmaltz (6 games) each had their point streaks snapped.