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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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."