For the first time in the tournament’s history, North Dakota is the champion of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, rallying from a 2-1 deficit with three goals in a span of 2:22 early in the third to break open the game en route to a 5-3 win over St. Cloud State Tuesday night.
It also marks the first time in the league’s history that the NCHC regular season Penrose Cup champion and No. 1 seed in the playoffs has also won the Frozen Faceoff.
North Dakota, despite three Penrose Cups, has struggled in the Frozen Faceoff, only advancing to the championship once, a 4-3 loss to Minnesota Duluth in 2017.
“It’s such a grind in the NCHC, a 24-game schedule against excellent teams,” said North Dakota coach Brad Berry. “Trying to win the Penrose is tough enough, but then when you have to condense it and come into an environment where you do have to play three games in five days against top competition, it’s a feat that we’ll never forget.
“It’s one of those things, too, I think it melds you a little bit tighter as a team as far as you grow to the point where you have momentum going into the NCAA regionals here, especially the way we did it. The last two games, we were behind a goal in the first period and finding a way to claw back and try to win games, that’s a big deal and it boosts your confidence going into regionals.”
St. Cloud came out strong to start the game, opening the scoring at 2:06 of the first with a goal by Zach Okabe, who capitalized on a great feed by Ondrej Trejbal. Okabe had an open net to poke it into off the feed through the crease.
“I just went to the net and Ondrej made a great play, and luckily it went in,” said Okabe. “We came out pretty well.”
The lead didn’t last long, as Riese Gaber tied it at 12:40 off a snap shot at the hashmarks of the right circle as he drove the crease after getting a great pass from Jordan Kawaguchi.
St. Cloud retook the lead just over four minutes after that when Seamus Donohue beat Adam Scheel with a rocket from the top of the left circle. It was Donohue’s first goal of the season.
St. Cloud was unable to build on that lead in the second period, despite outshooting North Dakota 16-7. That set up the third period push for North Dakota. Gavin Hein tied it at 3:20 on a power play with a quick release from the bottom of the left circle off a feed by Judd Caufield.
It didn’t stay tied for long, as North Dakota capitalized on a defensive breakdown. Off a faceoff, Gaber picked up the puck along the left boards near the hashmarks and then spun back toward the point. He was able to skate all the way to the blueline and then drive down the slot. Just outside the slot, the puck popped off his stick and Kawaguchi picked it up and beat St. Cloud netminder Dávid Hrenák five-hole at 4:54.
“I think the guys look inwardly a little bit,” said Berry. “You know, Jordan Kawaguchi and the rest of the senior group knew that this was their last game at the Ralph Engelstad Arena. Just kind of watching from the bench, you see a lot from the bench what goes on on the ice. You know, we played three games in five days.
“Some players have played some heavy minutes, one of them being Jordan Kawaguchi, and tonight I thought he looked like he got shot out of a cannon, and I think that goes to the leadership side of it as far as him being a captain and showing the way and what we need to do here. Even though he’s probably fatigued a little bit from a long game last night, it didn’t inhibit him at all in his playing, and I think our guys took the lead on that.”
North Dakota then went right on a power play and almost immediately scored, as Gaber got the puck in the slot and beat Hrenák with a quick snap shot from the hashmarks at the right side of the slot.
“I think I just stuck with my game and really battled and worked hard, and I think when you do that, good things just come,” said Gaber. “I was lucky to get some bounces and some opportunities and I cashed in on them, so it was good to get those.”
St. Cloud demonstrated the resilience it has shown this season when it pulled within one at 7:10 as Sam Hentges beat Scheel with sharp-angled shot from low on the right side boards. The Huskies kept the pressure on but were unable to get the equalizer, and Kawaguchi sealed it with an empty-netter at 19:52.
“We made a great push, had some chances at the end, really proud of our response,” said St. Cloud coach Brett Larson. “There was one right in front of the net that I thought maybe a call could have been made where I thought we would have had an empty net goal, potentially a holding the stick. More than anything, I’m just really proud of our group.”
The Frozen Faceoff All-Tournament Team was comprised of Gaber, Hain, and Scheel, North Dakota forward Collin Adams, North Dakota defenseman Jake Sanderson, and St. Cloud defenseman Nick Perbix. Gaber was picked as most outstanding player of the tournament.