NCHC Frozen Faceoff: North Dakota Captures First Playoff Title

GRAND FORKS, ND– For the first time in the NCHC’s inception, the North Dakota Fighting Hawks can lay claim to the NCHC Playoff Championship following their win Tuesday night against St. Cloud State by a score of 5-3.  

While the crowd was pro-North Dakota, St. Cloud struck first with Zach Okabe put home a slap-pass from Ondrej Trejbal behind Adam Scheel, as Okabe worked through two defenders to get his stick in for the redirect. North Dakota counter-punched with some sustained pressure on the St. Cloud zone, including three shots in one sequence by Jake Sanderson, but David Hrenak battled them off to keep the Huskies ahead. However, the pressure from North Dakota wouldn’t be stopped, as Riese Gaber tied the game with a laser shot pass the glove of Hrenak to tie the game. Gaber got a great pass across from Jordan Kawaguchi, who himself got a great outlet pass from Collin Adams. The Huskies answered back three minutes later, as Seamus Donohue ripped a shot from the top of the circle that went high blocker on Scheel to make it 2-1.

The second period had plenty of chances on both sides. St. Cloud swarmed Scheel plenty, getting off 16 shots in the frame, while North Dakota sustained pressure late in the frame, but only mustered seven shots on goal over the 20 minutes. 

Early in the third, North Dakota drew a holding penalty and went to work on the power play. Monday’s hero, Gavin Hain, tied the game after Shane Pinto worked around the outside of the Huskies’ defense and centered a perfect pass over to Hain to beat Hrenak. North Dakota then opened the floodgates as, first, Kawaguchi picked up a loose puck in front of the net as Gaber was hooked and potted it home to make it 3-2 North Dakota. The penalty was upheld after the goal and North Dakota converted with Gaber streaking down the slot to make it 4-2 off a pass from Matt Kiersted. Three goals in 2:02 had the Ralph Engelstad Arena buzzing with the majority of fans cheering their home team…obviously. Sam Hentges stopped the bleeding a bit for the Huskies, putting in a side angle shot under the arm of Scheel to cut the North Dakota lead to one. While St. Cloud pressed, North Dakota sealed the deal when Ethan Frisch made a smart clear out of the zone to Kawaguchi to put it away and made the final 5-3. 

THEY SAID IT

“I’m proud of that group. Great kids. They’re obviously hurting. Those guys never gave up. We made a great push and made some great chances at the end. There’s nothing that prepares you for the tournament like an atmosphere like that. That was like a Frozen Four game.”– St. Cloud head coach Brett Larson about his team push back. 

“I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but the sacrifices these kids have made. Some guys who haven’t seen their family in a year. Euros and Canadians who haven’t been able to go home. Players who are asked to sit in their apartments or go to the rink only. Not being able to have family at the game until the last month of the year. Parents who have sacrificed everything and not be able to see their kids. It doesn’t just go for our team– it’s all of college sports and college hockey.”– Larson on what he’ll reflect on from this season. 

“I feel like we validated our season by playing in a game like this. Showing we can show up and go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the countries. And our team can keep their heads held high because of it.”– Larson about his team staying in the Final game. 

“It was pretty sweet. It was crazy to think that the building was a quarter-full and it was that loud. It was pretty exciting.”– Gaber about the energy from the crowd. 

“Coming in, us young guys, it’s perfect to learn from the seniors and the older guys. As we get older, we can teach the younger guys how to win.”– Gaber on his process as a freshman. 

“We gave up the first goal again and had to chase the game a little. But I thought we got better as the game went on. We had some resiliency throughout the game, but especially in the third period, we did a good job of getting some offensive zone time. Special teams were a factor and at the end of the day, you have to score on your power play and defend against their power play.”– North Dakota head coach Brad Berry on his view of the game. 

“Our whole class did today. I’ve said this before, but we were on our walk going into the dressing room and we have our own way we go before game. We all thought it was our last walk before this game and it was kind of emotional, but happy we could get this win and pretty special to win our last game at The Ralph.”– Kawaguchi on playing his last game at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

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