Frozen Four finalists similar, but Quinnipiac has last change against North Dakota

Bo Pieper and Quinnipiac went through their final practice Friday (photo: Melissa Wade).

TAMPA, Fla. — The goals of both Quinnipiac and North Dakota are the same heading into Saturday’s national championship: win a title, which would be the first since 2000 for the Fighting Hawks or the first ever for Quinnipiac.

But there are plenty of other similarities when looking at these two clubs. So much so that North Dakota coach Brad Berry said he feels like he’s looking into the mirror when preparing his club to face Quinnipiac.

2016 Frozen Four

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“I’d like to think that they mirror a lot of us, what we do,” said Berry, who is looking to become the first to ever win a national title in his first season as a Division I men’s head hockey coach. “They play with a lot of tenacity. They play with a lot of compete. They play with a lot of fire. They have structure.”

Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, who in 22 years has brought his team from the bottom of Division II to within a game of a national title, agreed.

“I love the way North Dakota plays,” said Pecknold. “They just go. They pressure. I was really impressed with a few of the backchecks they had. Kids were out of the play and they came back hard, which is something we do. There are similarities.”

If there is a significant difference, it has been the storyline of the Frozen Four — and the season — for North Dakota, the line most now call the CBS Line.

Drake Caggiula, Brock Boeser and Nick Schmaltz, the trio which combined for the first three goals on Thursday against Denver in the national semifinal, account for 60 of North Dakota’s 157 goals this season and, even when facing an opponent’s shutdown defensive units, still seem to find success.

For Pecknold and the Bobcats, the fact that the club surged down the stretch to overtake North Dakota in the PairWise Rankings and take the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, being the home team on Saturday and having the last change might be the biggest dividend in hopes of shutting down the CBS Line.

“I don’t remember which week it was, but us and North Dakota kind of went back and forth in the PairWise, and I felt it was really important for us to be the No. 1 overall seed so we could have last change,” said Pecknold. “There are times we use it to our advantage, and there are times we don’t.

“I think with North Dakota, with that big first line, we do have to be conscious of that. And we will adapt and adjust, and we’ll probably use two lines to match up against them because we also want to stay in our flow. I’m really big on that. We want to keep our flow and our tempo.

Championship game: Quinnipiac vs. North Dakota, 8 p.m. EDT Saturday, ESPN2

“So we respect that line, and we’ll have to defend it well. And we’ll certainly have our No. 1 matchup when we get against it, but we won’t do it all the time. We’ll have a second line that will be able to go against it, too.”

Quinnipiac, itself, has power. It may not come in the form of an individual line but, as it proved on Thursday, the forecheck that pressures relentlessly causes confusion for defensemen and, as was the case against Boston College, creates goals. That could be the formula to counter North Dakota’s attack.

North Dakota players called it a 1-3-1 attack, referring to the first forechecker supported by his linemates and a defenseman jumping into the play. Pecknold called it a 1-1-3, suggesting a more defensive posture. Title it however you want; three games into this NCAA tournament, Quinnipiac has proved that it works.

North Dakota practices at Amalie Arena on Friday (photo: Melissa Wade).

“You can call it whatever you want, I think for us it’s something that we’re good at,” Pecknold said of his forecheck. “It’s something that allows us to kind of clog up the neutral zone a little bit. Our guys buy into it. We put players in the right positions to be successful.”

“Within our league, in the NCHC, we see [high-pressure forechecks] all the time,” Berry said. “There’s eight teams in our league, we see seven different opponents that bring that nightly.

“We’re well versed and we’re used to playing teams like Quinnipiac.”

The story behind the story on Saturday might be what a national title would mean to the respective schools.

For North Dakota, it may feel like a salvation story for easily the most passionate fan base in college hockey. The Fighting Hawks have won seven national titles but none since 2000. Over the 15-year stretch in between, the team has qualified for all but one NCAA tournament and reached the Frozen Four eight times. But only twice have the Fighting Hawks advanced past the semifinal, losing to Boston College in overtime in 2001 and Denver in 2005.

“I think there’s no more proof than the last two years in Philadelphia and Boston and coming so close and not closing the deal,” said Berry. “We’re very close and we communicate it daily, to the point where we bring things up that might be uncomfortable to talk about. That doesn’t matter.

“We’re a tight group. We talk about the heartache and the pain that we got to.”

For Quinnipiac, a national title is something that was mostly unimaginable when Pecknold took over a program that won six games in Division II his first season in 1994-95. Now it feels like it could be a reality.

“[A national title] wasn’t even close to my thought process in year one,” Pecknold said. “It was survival.

“I think where you start looking down the road and maybe we have a chance at [a championship] is when we went in the ECAC. And then we built our rink. That’s when all of a sudden things changed for us.”