Frozen Four preview: North Dakota takes plenty of confidence to Tampa

North Dakota had a rough weekend in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff but recovered in the Midwest Regional (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

Between a recent untimely dip in form and the strength of the Midwest Regional field, North Dakota had plenty of questions to answer heading into that event in Cincinnati.

The Fighting Hawks gave the strong response their situation required. In the regional semifinal on March 25, UND won 6-2 over Northeastern, triumphant in 20 of its last 23 games and fresh off earning the Hockey East playoff championship.

2016 Frozen Four

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Up next for the Hawks was a Michigan team that had missed each of the past three NCAA tournaments but was the class of the Big Ten this season. However, the Wolverines, too, were brushed aside when UND won the regional final 5-2 to book a spot at this year’s Frozen Four in Tampa.

Getting there wasn’t a fluke — North Dakota won the NCHC regular season title — but the Hawks made their road to Tampa more difficult than it could’ve been. After sweeping Colorado College in the first round of the NCHC playoffs, they fell 4-2 to Minnesota-Duluth in the league semifinals on March 18,

The next day, North Dakota skated to a 1-1 tie against Denver — the Hawks’ national semifinal opponent this Thursday — in the NCHC third-place game, the only such game for any men’s Division I hockey conference.

Hawks coach Brad Berry is in his first year at the helm, having taken over for current Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol. Berry was asked last week what he learned about his team in Cincinnati.

He went farther back than that.

About the Fighting Hawks

Coach: Brad Berry, first season at North Dakota and overall

Record: 32-6-4 (21-5-2 NCHC, first)

How they got to the Frozen Four: Defeated Northeastern 6-2 and Michigan 5-2 to win the Midwest Regional

Regional seed: First

Last Frozen Four appearance: 2015

Best NCAA finish: Champions, 2000, 1997, 1987, 1982, 1980, 1963, 1959

Why they’ll win the national championship: UND’s top line of Boeser, Caggiula and Schmaltz features players among the top 30 scorers in the country this season, and Johnson is one of the favorites to be named Division I’s top goalie.

Why they won’t win the national championship: UND has made a habit of dropping national semifinal games — it happened in both 2014 and 2015 — and Denver won’t be scared of the Hawks, having taken two wins and a tie against UND.

— Matthew Semisch

“I think we learned a little bit from the Frozen Faceoff, our league championship tournament, the week before,” Berry said. “When we get on the bus leaving after playing the third-place game, that didn’t sit very well with the players and the coaching staff.

“There’s a high bar and there’s expectations in our program here and we played OK, we didn’t play great. At this time of year you have to play great to keep moving on, and that wasn’t acceptable. What we did in full practices leading into the regional in Cincinnati, I thought we were sharp, there was focus, there was commitment there, and the guys did a good job of preparing themselves for Cincinnati.”

North Dakota heads to Tampa with plenty of confidence. Forwards Brock Boeser (26 goals, 28 assists), Drake Caggiula (21, 25) and Nick Schmaltz (10, 34) make up one of the best lines in the country.

At the other end of the ice, the Hawks have Cam Johnson (22-4-2, .934 save percentage, 1.67 GAA), statistically the best remaining goaltender in the NCAA tournament.

Winning the school’s eighth national championship is a big ask, however. Also heading to Tampa are Quinnipiac, Boston College and Denver, each of which joined North Dakota in the top five spots of the final PairWise Rankings this season.

First up at the Amalie Arena for UND are the Denver Pioneers. The Hawks went 2-2-1 against their rivals earlier this season, with the home teams winning twice before the third-place game draw in Minneapolis.

Another tie on neutral ice won’t happen again this week, which gives perhaps the most compelling storyline of this year’s national semifinals.

“We played Denver five times this year, and there’s no secrets regarding each program and what they bring to the table,” Berry said. “It’ll be a great NCHC matchup, and within our league there’s eight teams that you see every single weekend of teams matching up, and the parity’s so high that the [national semifinal] game is up for grabs.”