Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Roses and Thorns: Two Boxes Left to Check

UND celebrates their 5-2 win over Michigan in the Midwest
Regional final on Saturday. Coupled with their 6-2 victory over
Northeastern on Friday, the Green and White punched their ticket
to the Frozen Four for the third-straight season. (Photo: GF Herald)
When UND men's hockey coach Brad Berry took over the 2015-16 squad from the NHL-departing Dave Hakstol, he immediately met with the team and made sure they knew that expectations weren't changing.

The Green and White had finished their past two seasons in the national semifinals and Berry made it clear in his first meeting as bench boss that the team had two boxes left to check -- get to the national title game and bring home green banner No. 8 to the REA rafters.

After two convincing wins in the NCAA tournament's Midwest Regional in Cincinnati, North Dakota, once again, has just two boxes left to check.

The Green and White took the crown in the Queen City, overwhelming red-hot Northeastern 6-2 and shutting down Michigan and the vaunted CCM line, 5-2 and punched their ticket to Tampa and the Frozen Four for the third-straight season.

It was an impressive weekend for UND and here's what stood to DDC is his Roses and Thorns column, NCAA tournament style.


No. 1 -- Relentless Defense

UND head coach Brad Berry
after the 5-2 win over Michigan:

"I truly believe we have a special group
in our locker room," Berry said.
"They do the right things on and off
the ice. It's a team culture. It's a team-first
mentality. We've got a lot of high-end
players in that locker room.
They check their egos at the door.
It's team first and I think you witnessed
that this weekend."

The lead storyline coming into the Midwest Regional, outside of Northeastern's second-half success, was the offenses. The Huskies had the 12th-best scoring offense in the NCAA and the 7th-best power play, UND's was 8th led by the vaunted CBS line and the Wolverines, headlined by a trio of Hobey Baker Finalists, the CCM line, carried the best scoring offense and best power play. Who was going to score the most goals and head to Tampa? Well, simply put, it was the tenacious effort by the UND defense that stole the show and led UND to another Frozen Four. All weekend, the Green and White did not let either the Huskies nor the Wolverines time and space to create. They were incredible in the neutral zone. After dispatching NU in the first round, UND kept the CCM line of JT Compher, Kyle Connor and Tyler Motte at bay and made them do something that no other team had all season -- play dump and chase hockey. The CCM was a combined -7 on Saturday. This allowed the Green and White to control play and let their offense go to work. UND outshot their opponents by a 75-53 margin, allowing Michigan just 27 in the title game.  It was an amazing effort of sticks in lanes, board battle wins and net front efforts that led North Dakota. Goaltender Cam Johnson was solid, allowing just 2 goals per game to earn regional MVP honors. What a weekend from this defense against two tremendous offenses.

No. 2 -- Luke Johnson and the "Heavy Line"

The Junior forward has often been maligned by UND fans for his play in his career due to some ill-timed penalties and inconsistent play. But, Johnson has been nothing short of impressive in the NCAA tournament. Grouped on the newly dubbed "Heavy Line" with Rhett Gardner and Austin Poganski, Johnson notched a goal in each game this weekend and earned all-regional first team honors. The Grand Forks native has now scored a goal in five-straight NCAA tournament games, netting the eventual game winner on Friday and adding a crucial goal on Saturday with just 45 seconds left in the second period to give UND a 2-1 lead. Johnson and the Heavy Line's impact wasn't just offensive. The trio had a major part in shutting down the CCM line on Saturday with a terrific forecheck. Hats off to this trio, lead by Johnson.

UND's Rhett Gardner and the newly coined "Heavy Line" with Austin Poganski
and Luke Johnson had a tremendous weekend, notching 3 of UND's 11 goals and
leading a staunch defensive charge allowing just four goals in two games.
(Photo credit: Jesse Trelstad, Grand Forks Herald)

No. 3 -- UND's Depth

UND So. F, Johnny Simonson
scored a huge goal on Friday
with the Green and White trailing
1-0. It was Simonson's first goal
since October. The forward tallied
one of eight non-CBS line goals
on the weekend for UND.
For much of the season, a consistent storyline for the Green and White was their ability, or inability, of players outside of the top-flight CBS line to score goals. Once again, this is clearly in the rear-view mirror. The CBS did their part as both Brock Boeser and Drake Caggiula scored on Friday while Caggiula netted UND's first goal on Saturday, but the rest of the team did the heavy lifting on the weekend. The Green and White scored 11 goals on the weekend and the effort was from all over the lineup. Johnny Simonson scored UND's first goal on Friday, with the team trailing 1-0 in the first, his first since October. Then, Tucker Poolman, Luke Johnson and Bryn Chyzyk tallied the next three to put Northeastern away. On Saturday, it was more of the same. Caggiula opened the scoring for UND, but with the game tied 2-2, the Green and White depth took over with goals by Rhett Gardner and Coltyn Sanderson just 1:14 apart in the third period to send the Green and White to Tampa. Paul LaDue added an empty-netter to round out the 5-2 win. Scoring 11 goals in a regional is impressive. Even more impressive when just three of those came from UND's best forward line. This is a huge statement for the Green and White. This squad is absolutely not a one-line team.


No. 1 -- John Siminson, Cam Jansen, UND's CCM line and the TV Announcers

Woof. DDC knows this is silly, but it's worth mentioning -- who were these guys calling the games at the Midwest Regional? Ok, ok .... yes, this doesn't matter, but it certainly was annoying listening to the color man mention how many times he was the MVP of the regional when he played for Boston University while butchering simple names for UND. He certainly knew the names of the CCM, except when he called the CBS line the CCM. The Green and White dominated both teams in the regional, but somehow, the game always seemed close with this duo's constant love for non-existent consistent offensive pressure. Thank you for the coverage of this tournament, ESPN, but c'mon, let's get these guys to do a little pregame prep, eh? *Deep breath* ok... rant over.

No. 2 -- The Ref Check Heard 'Round the World

Ok, so this might be a bit of a rose, as it was hilarious, but where in the heck did that ref come from that delivered a huge check behind the net after Caggiula's goal on Saturday? If you haven't yet seen it, check out this bomb of a hit.

Cag was just about to go for a big celly, but this ref wasn't having it. DENIED! UND has done more celebrations this season than in years past with a more relaxed team style, so maybe former head coach Dave Hakstol got in this guy's ear to not allow this anymore. Great form. DDC is dying to know what Caggiula said to the man in stripes, but Troy Stecher did a good job to keep this laughable. Good stuff.

For fans of the Green and White, we've been here before. Up next, it's UND vs. Denver in the national semifinals in Tampa. Check back this week for more as North Dakota's chase for No. 8 continues. Thanks for reading!