TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — North Dakota kept its cool and will play in the NCAA hockey title game for the first time in 11 years.
Nick Schmaltz scored off a rebound with 56.8 seconds remaining and the Fighting Hawks survived blowing a two-goal, third-period lead to beat NCHS rival Denver 4-2 in the national semifinals Thursday night.
Schmaltz’s backhand shot from in front of the net slipped past goalie Tanner Jaillet, setting off a wild celebration among North Dakota fans in the crowd of 18,037 at Amalie Arena.
Drake Caggiula scored a pair of second-period goals for North Dakota. Rhett Gardner added an empty-netter with 1.9 seconds remaining.
“I thought we got away from our game a little bit early in the third period. You do that against a good team they’re going to make you pay, and Denver did that to us,” Schmaltz said. “Then we regrouped pretty well. Everybody was staying positive, everybody was confident in our team. We knew that we’d be fine. We went out there, made a play and won the game.”
North Dakota’s trip to the Frozen Four in its first season under coach Brad Berry is the 22nd for the Fighting Hawks. They will face No. 1 overall seed Quinnipiac on Saturday night in the title game.
Quinnipiac (32-3-7) advanced with a 3-2 victory over Boston College and is looking for its first national title. North Dakota (33-6-4) has won seven NCAA crowns, tied with Denver for second behind Michigan’s nine.
“Our message after the second period was keep the foot on the gas. The only problem was we stopped making plays for a little bit,” Berry said. “But there was no panic on the bench. Even though the game was going the wrong way the first 10 minutes of the third period, they caught their breath after a timeout.”
The Fighting Hawks, who lost in the semifinals the past two years, are headed to their first championship game since 2005, when they lost to Denver in the final. A win would give North Dakota its first national title since 2000.
Denver (29-10-6) was in the Frozen Four for the first time since 2005. The Pioneers entered this year’s tournament as one of the nation’s hottest teams, compiling an 18-3-4 record over the past three months after going 7-7-2 in October, November and December.
“It was a great college hockey game. It’s what we expected,” Denver coach Jim Montgomery said.
“When North Dakota and Denver play, it’s great hockey. And I said two days ago that the team that’s going to win is the team that makes the last play, and North Dakota made the last play,” Montgomery added. “They’re a great team, and I wish them luck. And I hope the NCHC brings home their first national title.”
The Fighting Hawks and Pioneers, conference rivals who first played in 1950, met for the 276th time. They split five previous meetings this season 2-2-1, and their first matchup in the NCAA tournament since 2011 was another evenly matched game.
Caggiula scored twice within a span of just over five minutes to extend his career-best points streak to 12 games for North Dakota, which seemed like an unlikely candidate to let Denver back in the game.
But the Pioneers, 0-7-when trailing after two periods this season, were far from done.
Will Butcher scored on a wrist shot from the top of the left circle off a faceoff to start the comeback. Denver made it 2-2 when Matt VanVoorhis tried to slip a pass to Gabe Levin in front of the net and the puck glanced off North Dakota captain Gabe Ausmus’ stick past goalie Cam Johnson with nine minutes remaining in regulation.
“We’re never going to give up no matter what the score is. It could have been 5-0 in the third, we would have come out with a ton of fire regardless,” Pioneers captain Grant Arnold said. “That’s just Denver hockey. That’s how Monty coaches. That’s how he recruits.”
Johnson stopped 21 shots for North Dakota, which limited Denver’s high-scoring “Pacific Rim Line” of Trevor Moore, Dylan Gambrell and Danton Heinen to nine shots and zero points.
By Fred Goodall, AP Sports Writer
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