TAMPA — The storied, 66-year rivalry between Denver and North Dakota added another crazy chapter with a frenzied finish in Thursday's Frozen Four semifinal at Amalie Arena.
North Dakota squandered a two-goal lead in the third period before recovering when Nick Schmaltz scored the game-winning goal with 56.8 seconds left to lift the Fighting Hawks to a 4-2 win in front of an announced crowd of 18,037. North Dakota will play for the program's eighth national title in Saturday's championship game against Quinnipiac.
"Maybe it wasn't our best performance," North Dakota forward Coltyn Sanderson said, "but there was never any doubt in our minds that we were going to keep battling, keep fighting, keep clawing to get to Saturday night."
The 276th all-time meeting — and the sixth this season — between two powerhouses with 14 combined titles seemed prime for a North Dakota (33-6-4) win through 40 minutes. The Fighting Hawks failed to record a shot in the first eight minutes but withstood two first-period power plays before finally coming alive with the best line in college hockey — the CBS line of Schmaltz, Brock Boeser and Drake Caggiula, which led the country in plus/minus rating and accounted for 57 of the team's 153 goals.
Boeser centered a pass to Caggiula, who fired a shot past Denver goalie Tanner Jaillet's stick side to extend his career-long points streak to 12 game.
Three minutes later, Caggiula corralled a loose puck and rocketed it from the right circle for his 23rd goal of the year to improve to a plus-43 rating — tops in the nation — and give him 18 points in 17 career games against the Pioneers.
"Big-time players make big-time plays, and that's what they did," first-year North Dakota coach Brad Berry said.
But Denver (25-10-6) wasn't done. The Pioneers ended the shutout three minutes into the third period when they won a faceoff in their offensive zone and Will Butcher blasted his ninth goal of the season.
Denver continued its attack on North Dakota and its standout goalie Cam Johnson — the Division I active leader in career goals-against average (1.76) and winning percentage (.821) who set a single-single season school record in save percentage.
Eight minutes later, defenseman Matt VanVoorhis tried a shot from the right side. North Dakota captain Gage Ausmus tried to stop it, but the puck deflected off of his stick and past Johnson for the tying goal.
"Man, we came out and we played hard," Denver captain Grant Arnold said of the Pioneers' third-period rally. "We played Pioneer hockey for about 19 minutes there."
But it all unraveled in the final 60 seconds, thanks to a costly icing call and North Dakota's CBS line.
Boeser won a faceoff in the Fighting Hawks' offensive zone but had his shot blocked by Jaillet. Schmaltz was in front of the net to backhand the rebound with 56.8 seconds left for his fourth goal against Denver this season.
"I said two days ago that the team that's going to win is the team that makes the last play," Denver coach Jim Montgomery said. "And North Dakota made the last play."
Rhett Gardner added an empty-net goal to seal the win. North Dakota advances to the title game for the first time since 2005.
Contact Matt Baker at email@example.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.