TAMPA, Fla. -- The state of North Dakota’s official slogan is Legendary. Perhaps, the state can share that slogan with its flagship university’s 2015-16 men’s hockey team.
Senior Drake Caggiula scored twice early in the third period to lift the University of North Dakota to a 5-1 victory over top-ranked Quinnipiac in the NCAA Frozen Four championship game on Saturday, delivering the school its eighth Division I men’s hockey championship and first since 2000.
Caggiula, named the Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player after scoring twice in both games, and his teammates now walk among the immortals in North Dakota hockey lore after their blitzing of the Bobcats ended the program’s second-longest national title drought.
“It’s a special feeling,” said Caggiula, who the undrafted free agent who finished his collegiate career on a career-long 13-game point streak. “It's a special night not only for us, but for all the people that have put work into the program, all the guys that have played before us, all the coaches that came before us, and anyone that's helped build this program up to where it is now.
“It's not just for this team, it's for all those people. It's for all those fans. It's a 16-year drought, but it's finally coming back to North Dakota.”
It’s coming back to North Dakota under first-year head coach Brad Berry, the former UND defenseman who became the only person to win a NCAA DI men’s hockey title in his first year as a head coach.
Berry stewarded his alma mater to a 34-6-4 record, masterfully integrating 11 freshmen into the lineup while overcoming a spate of injuries – and the weight of North Dakota hockey expectations along the way.
“We openly talk about winning championships and trying to be the best that we can be every single day,” said Berry. “It's long overdue, and I'm glad finally we can do that. I'm glad we didn't disappoint our fans that were in the stands tonight. We had a whole slug of them there, and I'm glad we came through for them.”
Caggiula’s clutch third period provided the exclamation mark, but was hardly North Dakota’s only standout performance.
Freshmen Shane Gersich and Brock Boeser staked the Fighting Hawks to a 2-0 lead in the final half of the first period, Boeser’s coming short-handed after intercepting a clearing attempt by QU goalie Michael Garteig and snapping it into the gaping net.
North Dakota largely carried the play at even strength, but found itself in penalty trouble with six minors through the first 40 minute. A 5-on-3 power-play goal by the Bobcats’ Tim Clifton with 67 seconds left in the opening frame gave QU life, capping off a run-and-gun, bone-crunching first period in which the two teams combined for 29 shots on goal.
The two teams settled into a more reasonable pace in the second period, as Garteig and UND netminder Cam Johnson took center stage with nine saves each in the middle frame.
“Our play got disrupted by taking a few undisciplined penalties,” said Berry. “We addressed that. No more. No more penalties. If we did that, then we'd be okay rolling four lines and getting back into our play.”
Caggiula scored twice in the opening four minutes of the third period, blowing the doors off of what was a 2-1 lead. His first came when Nick Schmaltz picked up a puck in the corner and fed a picture-perfect pass all the way across to the goalmouth to Caggiula, who dropped to one knee to tuck the puck deftly under the cross bar.
Two minutes later, Caggiula struck again while trailing a Boeser 1-on-1 rush. Boeser was angled away from the slot but alertly turned and found Caggiula trailing, and the Whitby, Ontario native made no mistake in beating Garteig.
North Dakota had not blown a game in two-and-a-half years when leading after two periods and it certainly wouldn’t be denied in the biggest game of the year.
“During the intermission, we talked about keeping the foot on the gas,” said Caggiula, whose team saw a 2-0 lead evaporate early in the third period of Thursday’s 4-2 semifinal victory over Denver. “We came out and I think we put the gas full throttle there. We wanted to get the next goal. We wanted to push back and make it as hard for them as possible. We got two early goals there. From there we just kept rolling and rolling.”
North Dakota put the final stamp on a championship with Austin Poganski’s 10th goal of the season midway through the third period, thus beginning a countdown to coronation in front of 19,358 mostly-green fans at Amalie Arena.
“Obviously the Denver game,” said captain Gage Ausmus, “it was a little scary for a little bit. They came back and scored two goals, one going off my stick in the net to tie it up. And that's something we don't want to do is give up a lead like that, especially in the third period. So thankfully, with those lessons we learned throughout the season, we were able to keep our foot on the pedal and keep going tonight.”
Caggiula (2 goals), Boeser (1 goal, 3 assists) and Nick Schmaltz (1 assist) worked their “CBS” magic one final time, combining for a plus-17 rating in their two Frozen Four games.
On the back end, Johnson clinched all-tournament honors with a 32-save championship performance.
It was an ironic ending to his season, considering the first two shots he faced in the season opener as UND’s starter each found the back of the net. Johnson was asked about that in the post-game press conference.
“I guess it's not about how you start, it's about how you finish,” said Johnson, eliciting laughter from the press corps.
Then, Caggiula turned to his netminder and said, “Good answer.”
North Dakota entered the 2015-16 season facing plenty of questions, after losing their head coach, All-American goaltender and several battle-tested seniors after a 2015 Frozen Four loss.
Much like Caggiula said of his netminder, Saturday’s performance was a good answer.
Notes: UND’s eight national titles are topped only by Michigan’s nine … Caggiula was joined on the all-tournament team by Boeser, Cam Johnson and Troy Stecher ... Boeser led the team in scoring with 60 points, a number reached by only three other freshmen in school history: Kevin Maxwell (1978-79), Troy Murray (1980-81) and Zach Parise (2002-03). Boeser also became only the third freshman ever to lead the team in scoring … UND finished the year 27-0-2 when leading after two periods … UND finished the season with an .818 winning percentage, second-best in school history behind only the 1986-87 national champions (.833) … Johnson posted a school-record .935 save percentage in his first year as the starter.