NCAA Frozen Four: CBS line leads North Dakota to eighth title

NCAA Frozen Four: CBS line leads North Dakota to eighth title

This was best-on-best.

Two of the best offenses. Two of the best defenses. Two of the best possession teams. Quinnipiac lost three games all year. Just six for North Dakota. Over the last four seasons, no teams have won as many games as these two have.

An incredibly entertaining, physical, three-goal first period gave way to a still-physical but far quieter second. But North Dakota's top line ran the show, and though the Quinnipiac pushback was respectable enough, the hole was too deep. The Fighting Hawks cruised to a 5-1 win, and won their eighth national title, and first since 2000.

“It feels great,” said first-year North Dakota coach Brad Berry. “We openly talk about winning championships and trying to be the best that we can be every single day. And finally to complete that and do that it's a team award that we'll cherish for a long time. As much as this group is going to enjoy it, I think the city of Grand Forks, the state of North Dakota, the University of North Dakota, the athletic department, the Ralph Engelstad family, they'll all enjoy it.”

Rand Pecknold, the masterful Quinnipiac coach, had a whopper of a decision to make coming in. North Dakota's ultra-dominant CBS line that both drove the bus and parked it in the Fighting Hawks' win over Denver on Thursday needed to be in some way corralled or at least quieted, and thanks to the Bobcats having last change as the No. 1 seed in the tournament, it fell to Devon Toews and Kevin McKernan to get the job done. But it quickly became apparent that this was a job for which no man was worthy.

Brock Boeser finished with the game-winner and three assists and was clearly the best player on the ice for the full 60. Drake Caggiula had the two absolute daggers 2:20 apart early in the third. Nick Schmaltz had an assist on the insurance goal. That was on top of the combined six points they piled up against Denver on Thursday. Just an unbelievable weekend from the unstoppable CBS line, at both ends of the ice, on and off the puck.

“Everybody gets caught up in the offensive side of the game as far as their skill,” Berry said. “You know what: they have NHL skills, special skills, but the intangible is their work ethic away from the puck.”

On the other bench, Quinnipiac was a little more of a “next man up” type of a club this year (10 guys cleared 20 points this year, compared with “just” eight for the Fighting Hawks.) Sam Anas, Landon Smith, and Travis St. Denis is their top line, but the following two not really being that much worse. Particularly because Anas — who's been nursing a shoulder injury for weeks — was very clearly not in good shape, going to the room twice in the first period. By the end of the game, Anas was clearly playing with only one arm.

In the early going, things were more or less a stalemate, insofar as there weren't any truly good scoring chances. But the Fighting Hawks were at the very least doing a better job of keeping Quinnipiac to the outside, and had an easier time moving through the neutral zone with the puck.

As the first went on, the North Dakota advantage grew, as they got to every loose puck and were far more eager to throw the body around (not that Quinnipiac was unhappy to return the favor). The message from the outset was clear.

“Stay with our game plan, stay with it,” Berry said. “I thought we got into some penalty trouble in the first part of the game. That's tough, gets you out of momentum. Gotta kill penalties in a great power play in Quinnipiac. And our guys stuck with it. They dug in found a way to get through it. The biggest part was getting on the rails again and again it goes to the leadership in the locker room.”

And indeed, Shane Gersich finally opened the scoring at the very end of a two-minute 4-on-4 situation. He successfully fronted Quinnipiac goalie Michael Garteig and banged home a rebound on a seeing-eye point shot. But everything, not surprisingly, was facilitated by Brock Boeser, who dug out a 50-50 puck deep in the attacking zone and got it back to Gage Ausmus on the blue line.

Just 2:20 later, Boeser added what seemed to be the backbreaker on a Quinnipiac power play. He capitalized on a not-good decision by Garteig to try to clear a puck that got caught in no-man's land. Garteig bounced it off Boeser's torso, and left 24 square feet of net wide open for one of the most proficient forwards in the nation. He, of course, did not miss.

“[Boeser has] been a special player for us all season long,” said Caggiula, who was named Most Outstanding Player at the Frozen Four. “And big players come through in big games. And he definitely stepped up today. He's a hell of a player, hell of a kid. And it was an honor to play on his line all season long. He makes things happen out there and he definitely took charge today.”

Asked what happened on the play, Garteig kept it succinct: “I'd actually prefer not to talk about it, thank you.” Yeah, it was that kind of goal.

But the physical play came back to briefly haunt the Fighting Hawks, at least a little bit. First Drake Caggiula bumped Garteig — making him the lucky 1 millionth North Dakota player to make contact with the goalie — then Troy Stecher (rather unthinkingly) cross-checked Anas back to the dressing room. Quinnipiac scored three seconds into the two-man advantage, and the game was interesting once again.

Also interesting: This is the first time all year Quinnipiac lost after trailing through 20 minutes. They were previously an unconscionable 6-0-2. They were also just 5-1-2 in games in which they were down two goals at any point. This is the quality of their bounce-back ability. Well, usually.

The Bobcats certainly settled things down in the second and took the game from being something of a track meet to more of a measured exchange that began to favor them. They still weren't getting particularly close to the net all that often, but they certainly had the better of the scoring chances, on the balance. Combining that with the slowed-down pace certainly favored them. But there weren't any goals in the period, and given the way Quinnipiac had been playing, they were probably a bit chagrined.

“I thought we played a strong second period,” said Garteig, who conceded five goals on 36 shots. “And I mean I guess maybe after [a save on a North Dakota breakaway], yeah, maybe a little bit of momentum shift. But in reality I thought we had a really strong second and we hit a couple of posts and couple of bounces that maybe just didn't go our way. And unfortunately we couldn't pop one in and make it a 2-2 game going into the third. Just kind of the way hockey goes sometimes.”

A large part of that was down to Garteig's counterpart, Cam Johnson (32 saves on 33 shots in the win) in the North Dakota net. He made stops on a few high-quality scoring chances, and was also bailed out by a post on a Sam Anas shot (Anas's second iron of the game) for what was probably the Bobcats' best 5-on-5 scoring chance of the game.

AP Photo/Chris O'Meara
AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

More record-at-the-end-of-a-period stats: North Dakota came in 70-0-5 in its previous 75 games when leading through 40. The last time they blew such a lead was Nov. 1, 2013, when they conceded three straight to St. Cloud after being up 1-0. Meanwhile, Quinnipiac came back to take seven points (2-2-3) from third-period deficits this year, which is good but not exactly encouraging.

And well, Caggiula put any comeback concerns to rest just 1:21 into the third, as the CBS line capitalized on a turnover behind the Quinnipiac net. Boeser worked the puck free, Nick Schmaltz controlled it and made the cross-ice pass, Caggiula roofed the hell out of it. It was the first 5-on-5 goal of the game, and also the ballgame.

Then to pile on the misery, Boeser earned a partial break 2:20 later, realized he didn't have a chance to make anything happen himself, and made a great area pass to Caggiula who made it 4-1. Quinnipiac just didn't have any sort of answer for what the CBS line did from front to back, and once the lead was cemented couldn't generate enough to make any sort of difference. Johnson was there when they did.

“He's been a huge part of [the team's success],” Berry said. “I think we proved ourselves, that we have a goaltender here and again we're extremely proud of him.”

Austin Poganski scored to make it 5-1 halfway through the period, and that was just about it for any noteworthy action on the night.

In the end, North Dakota and Quinnipiac were the two best teams in the country, but the winner was the one with the more dominant top line and the better goalie. If this had been a three-, five-, or seven-game series, or if Anas had been healthy, maybe things would have gone differently.

But probably not. When your top line combined for 150 points and your goalie was north of .930 for the year, that's the difference-maker.

“I mean, [the CBS line is] really good,” Pecknold said. “You know, I don't like to put it any other way. That line's special. We haven't seen a line as good as that all season. And we've played against some good ones. ... I haven't seen a line like that. They're high-end NHL talent. They're honest. They compete. They win battles. It's a pretty special combination of ability there.”

North Dakota's path to the Frozen Four went through the hottest team in the country (a Northeastern team they dismantled in the first round), the team with the best regular-season line in the country (a Michigan team the team's depth picked apart in the regional final), the only team that beat them twice this year (a Denver team they choked out on Thursday), and the team with the best record in the country. They finished the NCAA tournament with 21 goals for just seven against in four games.

Can't knock the hustle on that. That's what the best team in the nation does.