UND rallies past St. Cloud State to win NCHC playoff title

Riese Gaber and Jordan Kawaguchi each score twice as the Fighting Hawks become the first team in league history to win both the regular season and playoff championships in the same season.

031721 S GFH NCHCCHAMP01-8.jpg
The UND Fighting Hawks men's hockey team celebrates its NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship victory over St. Cloud State Tuesday, March 16, 2021 at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
We are part of The Trust Project.

Ralph Engelstad Arena was empty late Tuesday night when UND's eight seniors decided they wanted one final moment together in the building.

Wearing their game day suits, they walked back on the ice, set the National Collegiate Hockey Conference championship trophy on the Frozen Faceoff logo, gathered around it and posed for photos.

There was one problem, though.

The ice crew just finished resurfacing the ice, so the thin layer of water turned to ice and the trophy was frozen in place. They tried to pull it off to no avail. One player took a running start and slide into it. That didn't work either. The junior class filed back on the ice to take in the scene.

Then, one player shouted out the answer.


"Just leave it there," he said.

They might as well let the trophy bask as the arena's centerpiece for a while longer after what it took to finally bring it home.

031721 S GFH NCHCCHAMP01-4.jpg
Fighting Hawks defenseman Jake Sanderson steals the puck as St. Cloud State's Spencer Meier (9) dives for it in the second period of the NCHC championship Tuesday, March 16, 2021 at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

A year after the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the playoffs, UND mounted third-period rallies in both the semifinals and the championship game to win the NCHC Frozen Faceoff for the first time since the league's formation eight years ago.

The Fighting Hawks finished it off with a 5-3 win over St. Cloud State on Tuesday night in front of pandemic-limited crowd of 3,157, the largest to watch a college hockey game in person this season.

Freshman Riese Gaber scored two goals and added an assist, earning MVP honors. Hobey Baker Award candidate Jordan Kawaguchi also had two goals and an assist, putting the finishing touches on what was likely his final game in the building by icing the championship with an empty-net goal. And Gavin Hain, the overtime hero a night earlier, scored another clutch goal, tying the game in the third period.

RELATED: If UND's Jordan Kawaguchi played his final game at The Ralph, his home career ends in fitting fashion
"We called it 'unfinished business' last year when our season got pulled out from under us, like every other college hockey team," said UND coach Brad Berry, whose team was the favorite in Vegas to win the national title when the pandemic shut down the season. "We have an opportunity to do something special here moving forward.


"I've got to commend our guys for doing it, but I think in the back of our minds, we think of guys like Cole Smith and our senior group last year that left our program and didn't get that opportunity. We're playing for our group, but we're also playing for that senior group that really didn't have that opportunity last year."

UND has been the league's dominant regular-season team, winning the Penrose Cup four times in eight years. The Fighting Hawks beat out second-place St. Cloud State by nine points in the standings this season. But the league's playoff title had avoided UND until Tuesday, when the Fighting Hawks became the first team in league history to double up and win both the regular-season and playoff titles in the same year.

031721 S GFH NCHCCHAMP01-11.jpg
Fighting Hawks forward Riese Gaber celebrates his third period power play goal against the St. Cloud State Huskies during the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship at Ralph Engelstad Arena on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

"It's such a grind in the NCHC, a 24-game schedule against excellent teams," Berry said. "Trying to win the Penrose is tough enough, but then you have to condense it and come into an environment where you 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 that melds you a little tighter as a team. You grow to the point where you have momentum going into the NCAA regionals, especially the way we did it the last two games. We were behind a goal in the third period, finding a way to claw back and win games. That's a big deal and it boosts your confidence going into regionals."

The Fighting Hawks joined elite company in program history, becoming the seventh team to pull off the conference double. The previous teams to do it: 2011, 1997, 1987, 1980, 1979 and 1967.

Three of those squads -- 1997, 1987 and 1980 -- went on to win the NCAA national title, which will be this squad's next goal. UND will play in an NCAA regional semifinal game on March 26 in Fargo's Scheels Arena. It will find out its opponent during the selection show at 6 p.m. Sunday night (ESPNU).


But for a night, they will celebrate bringing home the NCHC Frozen Faceoff trophy after previously losing in the semifinals four times, the quarterfinals once and the championship once.

031721 S GFH NCHCCHAMP01-12.jpg
(Clockwise from left) UND men's hockey players Ethan Frisch (15), Jake Sanderson (26), Shane Pinto (22) and Collin Adams (18) celebrate captain Jordan Kawaguchi's empty net goal which propelled the Fighting Hawks to a 5-3 NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship victory over St. Cloud State Tuesday, March 16, 2021 at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

"It's unbelievable," said Kawaguchi, the senior captain. "It's kind of nice to win it after we weren't able to (play for it) last year. It's the first time in our program's history, so it's pretty special that way as well."

Because of the pandemic, the tournament was played in Grand Forks instead of in St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, and the Fighting Hawks took advantage. They continued their home dominance, improving to 29-2 in their last 31 games in The Ralph.

Just as they did in the semifinal against Denver, the Fighting Hawks trailed by a goal entering the third period. But they rallied with three goals in the span of 2:02 at the start of the frame to take the lead for good.

Hain buried a feed from Judd Caulfield at 3:20 to tie it 2-2 with a power-play goal. Kawaguchi finished a goal after Gaber sliced through the Husky defense to get the puck on top of the crease at 4:54. And Gaber scored his second of the game on the power play at 5:22, snapping home a feed from Shane Pinto.

031721 S GFH NCHCCHAMP01-3.jpg
UND goaltender Adam Scheel deflects at St. Cloud State shot in the first period of the NCHC championship at Ralph Engelstad Arena on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

"You could feel they were starting to make a push, which we were prepared for and we knew they were going to," St. Cloud State coach Brett Larson said. "It was just that sequence where we took that penalty off the faceoff, they scored on that, then scored on the power play. . . and then all of the sudden the neutral site didn't feel so neutral anymore and you could tell they were really buzzing."

St. Cloud State's Sam Hentges scored to make it a one-goal game at 7:10, but the Huskies couldn't even it up. Kawaguchi sealed it with a shot from the neutral zone into the empty net with less than 10 seconds remaining.

Both teams stayed on the ice for the trophy presentation. NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton gave a speech to the teams and fans, then handed another trophy to Kawaguchi, just as he did 24 days earlier when UND clinched the regular-season title.

This trophy, however, remained at center ice a little bit longer thanks to the seniors. Eventually, the ice crew chiseled it out and the players brought it back to the locker room.

"I'm not going to say it was our class," Kawaguchi said, breaking into a big smile. "But it was. We might have gotten it stuck there. But it's all right. We figured it out. We're all good now."

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at
What to read next
Featuring local women's golf results, area college volleyball preseason polls and much more!
Featuring preseason college football and volleyball polls, women's soccer results and much more!
Featuring auto racing results from across the region, college soccer scores and much more!
Featuring auto racing results from across the region, college football preseason polls and much more!