TAMPA, Fla. – Sometimes the biggest plays don’t end up on the scoreboard.
That was never more true than with 6:25 left in regulation of North Dakota’s Frozen Four semifinal contest against Denver. North Dakota opened the third period, 20 minutes away from the national championship game, with a 2-0 lead. But by the middle of the period, that lead had evaporated and all the momentum had shifted to the Pioneers.
North Dakota’s Trevor Olson was then whistled for an elbowing penalty that at first glance had five-minute major for a hit to the head written all over it. North Dakota fans shown on TV and the huge Amalie Arena video board looked as though multiple close family members had just died.
It was happening again. The Fighting Hawks’ recent Frozen Four agonies — plenty of appearances but no titles since 2000 — were about to get a thick, fresh layer.
A five-minute major in a tied game with six and a half to play?
Video replay determined, however, that only a two-minute minor was justified.
The relief that the five-minute major bullet had been dodged lasted all of a nanosecond. Two long minutes still remained. Two minutes with the lead and the momentum still gone, gone, gone.
But with the Fighting Hawks’ national championship hopes riding in the balance, their penalty kill did to Denver what it has done all season long. It continued its six-game, 0-for-the-season shutout of the Pioneers (that also included, as if a further insult were needed, a mid-season short-handed goal).
Arguably, this PK rendered all others of secondary importance. But it also followed their results to a T.
“That was our worst power play tonight,” said Denver defenseman Will Butcher.
And what a time to force an opponent’s worst power play.
“We take pride in our special teams,” said offensive star Drake Caggiula whose two goals had staked North Dakota to its early lead. “We definitely take pride in our penalty kill. It’s a huge part of our game.
“We had that penalty kill there late in the third, and we were able to kill it off. You can get a lot of momentum from a penalty kill like that.”
It would be tough to argue the point based on this game since minutes later, with 57 seconds left on the clock, Nick Schmaltz scored the game-winner.
Schmaltz will get the headlines, and deservedly so. But you’ll get little argument from those in the know that the late-third-period penalty kill saved the game.
“The penalty kill did a great job,” said North Dakota coach Brad Berry. “It won us the game.”
And it won’t be a surprise if on Saturday night, it does it again.