Saturday, April 9, 2016

It's Time to Write History -- Men's Hockey National Championship

UND fans again showed why they're the best in the college hockey world
and they were treated to an epic finish on Thursday. (Photo: GF Herald)
It came in a split second and it resonated in the pit of DDC's stomach.

It's a feeling that he and the rest of the Green and White faithful have become all too familiar with.

A centering pass from the sideboards deflected off of UND junior captain Gage Ausmus' stick and bled through netminder Cam Johnson's five hole and to the back of the net.

Sixteen years of heart-wrenching memories popped to the forefront of DDC's mind. A collective uneasiness could be felt from Tampa, to the Twin Cities, to Grand Forks and back.

Nathan Gerbe. Shawn Hunwick. 0.6.  Jack Eichel.

"Not again," DDC mumbled to himself under his breath.

With nine minutes left to go in the national semifinals, UND was on the ropes as Denver knotted the game at 2-2.

While the narrative of the past 16 years of disappointments flooded the minds of the fans, first-year head coach Brad Berry never lost faith in his team. The sentiment was clear. Not this year. Not this team. They've come too far, fought too hard. It's time for history to change. It's time for the narrative to change.

Denver continued to jump. Johnson continued to come up large in the UND net.

Then, in less than four seconds, the haunting narrative died.

Exactly one minute to go with a faceoff in the Denver zone. Brock Boeser won the draw. Drake Caggiula fired the puck that hit traffic in the slot. Boeser gathered the bounce and fired a backhander towards the net. Nick Schmaltz snagged the shot, stayed on his backhand --- and buried it.

The sophomore forward not only buried the puck to the back of the net ... he buried the narrative.

UND So. F, Nick Schmaltz buried the game-winning goal with 57 seconds left in the third period on Thursday. The Green
and White topped Denver 4-2 to advance to the National Championship game on Saturday. (Photo: Eric Hylden, GF Herald)
An empty netter later, UND was moving on to the national championship game with a 4-2 and the heart-wrenching feeling from Tampa, to the Twin Cities, to Grand Forks and back had been replaced with elation.

With the 16-year run of Frozen Four heartaches shattered, in the post-game press conference, the Green and White had already turned the page.

When asked about his feeling of getting the proverbial national semifinal monkey off their back, the senior Caggiula noted that their job is not over.

"When you first step on the University of North Dakota campus, the first thing you talk about is winning a national championship. For the first three years, we came up short and as a senior class we want to leave this program with a national championship. We're one step closer, there. We're going to get ready for Saturday and hopefully win the national championship we've been working four years for."

UND has their shot.

The Final Box to Check

Two teams are left. Quinnipiac, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, is waiting.

With a 3-2 victory over perennial power Boston College in the first semifinal, the Bobcats are looking to write a narrative of their own.

Quinnipiac is a relative infant to the Frozen Four stage, having made the national championship final just one other time, losing to Yale in 2013, but the Bobcats are looking to make their permanent mark on men's college hockey.

The ECAC champion Bobcats have been at or near the top of the national ranking all season, having lost just three times.

They, like North Dakota, have big aspirations on Saturday night.

Who will be the team to check that final box of season-long goals and hoist the national championship?

The Pick

National Championship game:

North Dakota vs. Quinnipiac -- 7 p.m.

Will it be No. 1 for Quinnipiac to cap off a dominant season or will it be No. 8, the long-awaited green banner to hang from the Ralph Engelstad Arena rafters for North Dakota?

Let's get one thing straight. Saturday's title game is featuring the two best college hockey teams in the land. This isn't because they are in the title game, it's because these two teams have shown all season that they belong on this stage. After multiple years of dazzling runs by relative underdog teams like Minnesota Duluth, Yale, Union and Providence, these two teams are the best of the best.

Quinnipiac is dynamic, fast, incredibly structured and very talented in net. Again, this team hasn't just magically lost just three games all season. The Bobcats were relentless against BC in the semifinals and created their goals by flat out outworking the Eagles.

Those superlatives are a mirror image of UND. Each team has the ability to shut their opponent down and bury big-time, clutch goals.

Both teams look to have a key junior forward either out or slowed on Saturday night.

QU junior Hobey Baker finalist Sam Anas battled off a shoulder injury in the ECAC tournament and played through the regionals, but came off the ice in the first period against BC and only came back in a limited role the rest of the way. While he appears ready to play, Anas is nowhere near 100%.

UND Jr. F, Luke Johnson
will likely miss Saturday's
title game after a lower-body
injury forced him out of
Thursday's semifinal victory.
On the other bench, UND junior Luke Johnson collided with a teammate early on in the game on Thursday and never returned to action. He is most likely out for the title game.

For both QU and UND, it's next man up.

With these two teams as about even as can possibly be, what will be the difference?

Both teams are dominant in both zones. QU has the better power play, but UND has the better penalty kill. Both teams have Mike Richter finalist goaltenders.

The media has echoed the difference, in DDC's mind. The X-Factor looks to be talent. Before the average reader fills my comment board, please bear with DDC, here. QU has loads of talent, but the Green and White have just a little bit more.

All season long, UND fans have been treated to a team that has that "It-Factor." That extra special, dynamic, game-breaking, cold-blooded piece that DDC has talked about from the start of the season that separates them from the rest of the pack.

It's the tic-tic-tic-tac-toe goal against Miami.

It's Nick Schmaltz and Brock Boeser (:50 in) toe drags.

It's Drake Caggiula's windmill game winner.

It's Austin Poganski's go-to move.

UND Fr. F, Brock Boeser
is DDC's pick National Title
game-breaker pick.
The "It-Factor".

And for the first time in 16 years, that will make the difference as North Dakota takes home the title.

The National Championship game-breaker: Freshman Forward, Brock Boeser. This kid has been special. And as he has so many times this year, Boeser will do it again, scoring UND's eventual national championship-winning goal in the third period.


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