After clearing ‘semifinal wall,’ North Dakota seeks ultimate goal

North Dakota’s Drake Caggiula practices Friday (photo: Melissa Wade).

TAMPA, Fla. — “It’s nice to break down that semifinal wall.” That’s how sophomore goaltender Cam Johnson put North Dakota’s 4-2 win over Denver on Thursday into perspective.

The Fighting Hawks are making their third consecutive appearance in the Frozen Four, but this time they survived their first game and will play for the national championship. In 2014, North Dakota lost 2-1 to Minnesota in Philadelphia. Last year, the Fighting Hawks lost 5-3 to Boston University in Boston.

Thursday night, even when North Dakota saw a two-goal lead evaporate in the third period, the team knew it wasn’t going down without fighting hard for what had been so close in two previous seasons.

Said coach Brad Berry: “When it was 2-0 and they made it 2-2, at the 10-minute mark [in the third period], it was not only the coaches but it was the players on the bench that all reiterated the same thing out of their mouths: ‘We’ve come too far. We’ve come too far. We’ve put too much into this thing. We don’t want this to happen like it did the past two years.’

“So guys know. And they believe. I think it’s a tribute to the relationship and the resiliency in our locker room, and that comes from the players.”

Junior defenseman Troy Stecher said that the way the past two seasons ended for North Dakota has been a motivating factor for the whole team.

“Yeah, it creates a little fire within yourself,” said Stecher. “You work so hard. You set a goal within the summer, not just the beginning of the year.

“We weren’t shy about talking about it. And some people may not like that, but that’s just the confidence within our hockey group, that we support each other and we have each other’s backs. For the sophomore class, junior class, senior class, we kind of understand that feeling of disappointment. But at the same time, we played really well in Cincinnati in the regional and we remember how good we felt there and we have an opportunity to feel that way again.”

“We’re very close and we communicate daily,” said Berry, “and to the point where we bring things up that might be uncomfortable to talk about, but it doesn’t matter. We’re a tight group. We talk about the heartache and the pain that we’ve got to.”

North Dakota last played for a national championship in 2005 in Columbus, Ohio, a 4-1 loss to Denver. The Fighting Hawks won their last national title in 2000, a 4-2 win over Boston College in Providence, R.I. Stecher said that he and his teammates are eager to contribute to the program’s tradition.

“This program prides itself on our success and the history, and tomorrow’s another opportunity to do something this university hasn’t done in 16 years,” said Stecher. “So a lot of colleges would be proud just to get to the Frozen Four, and we’ve done that in the past years and fell short and were disappointed.

“We’re really excited for tomorrow. We understand it’s going to be extremely difficult.”