CINCINNATI — For the 22nd time in its program’s history and third consecutive season, North Dakota is heading to the Frozen Four.
The Fighting Hawks bested the Michigan 5-2 on Saturday, getting three goals in the third period to break a tie.
NCAA Midwest Regional
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Nine Fighting Hawks players registered a point in the contest. Michigan’s JT Compher scored twice, and Tyler Motte also finished with a multi-point game, as did North Dakota’s LaDue.
“Obviously, it’s very humbling,” first-year North Dakota head coach Brad Berry said. “We’re very grateful to punch our ticket to Tampa. It doesn’t come easy. … I truly believe we have a special group in our locker room. They do the right things on and off the ice. It’s team first, and I think you witnessed that this weekend.”
North Dakota, the top seed in the Midwest Region, wasted no time establishing the pace of play, unloading 24 shots on goal over the first 20 minutes. One of those attempts stood as Drake Caggiula’s 20th goal of the year and second of the weekend when he followed his own rebound at the 18:54 mark of the opening frame.
“Our guys stayed with it,” Berry said. “We didn’t deviate from our structure and we stayed with it. That’s been kind of the strength of our team this year, believing in what we do and finding a way to get that first goal.”
Despite being outshot by a margin of three-to-one out of the gate, the Wolverines didn’t go quietly. Compher tied the game with his 15th goal of the year a few minutes into the second period, but North Dakota’s Luke Johnson regained the lead in the twilight moments of the frame.
Compher gifted the junior Fighting Hawks forward a pass right in front of goaltender Steve Racine, whose outstretched arm narrowly missed the wrist shot.
Compher made up for his mistake in the final frame, however, when he and the “CCM” line managed to work the puck around and open a shooting lane up top. Compher launched a shot from the blue line that found its way through several players, the last of whom was goalie Cam Johnson, to tie the game at two apiece. The goal at 8:39 reinvigorated the Wolverines and their well-traveled fan base, but the Fighting Hawks closed the door in the latter half of the third.
Racine fell two saves short of a career best with his 44-stop effort. At several times, especially in the first period, the senior was the difference between a 1-0 deficit and a blowout.
“I thought [Racine] was terrific,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “There have been question marks regarding our goaltending the past three years, but I don’t think there are any questions about it this year. He gave us a chance.”
Johnson backstopped North Dakota with 25 saves. Although there were stretches where Johnson went minutes at a time without seeing a puck in his zone, he was equal to the task when called upon down the stretch.
“Those are the toughest games to play in, when you’re not seeing a bunch of shots,” said Johnson, a Troy, Mich, native. “Then they come down and have some good opportunities. … You have to be mentally dialed-in and be ready for whatever comes my way.”
The defeat ended Michigan at 25-8-5. For the captain of the losing squad, elimination was the most agonizing moment of the season. But Compher expressed nothing but respect for the product his team displayed all season.
“I’m really proud of this team,” he said. “Right now, it’s tough to talk and everyone knows that we love each other. We work together, and we left it all out on the ice tonight.”