TAMPA — For the past 11 years, the NCAA Frozen Four has been a source of disappointment more than joy for North Dakota.
The Fighting Hawks, who advanced to the NCAA semifinals six times during that span, lost every one of those games, narrowly missing a chance to play for the program's eighth hockey national championship each time.
And Thursday night against Denver, it appeared history was on the verge of repeating itself.
North Dakota went up by two goals early when senior forward Drake Caggiula scored back-to-back goals in the second period. But Denver retaliated, scoring quickly twice in the third to tie.
The Fighting Hawks' comfortable lead dwindled but Caggiula said spirits were as high as ever.
"There was no panic on the bench. Everyone saddled up and said, 'Hey, let's push back, let's push back,' " Caggiula said. "We kept pushing and pushing, and we finally broke through."
And it was a breakthrough in more ways than one.
For the first time since 2005, North Dakota (33-6-4) won a Frozen Four game, 4-2 against the Pioneers. More important, the Fighting Hawks earned an opportunity to compete for another national championship, something the storied hockey program hasn't won since 2000.
And though tonight's game against No. 1-ranked Quinnipiac is the most important outcome of this year's trip to the Frozen Four, Caggiula admits that getting over the semifinal hump was a much-needed feat in itself.
"The prior two years losing in the semifinals and then finally winning it this year, you kind of get that monkey off your back and get that confidence that, you know what, we can do this, and we believe in ourselves," Caggiula said. "We just hope we can take the momentum from (Thursday) and bring it to Saturday."
Adding to North Dakota's accomplishment is the fact that it hasn't strayed from its usual Frozen Four path despite a year of transition.
In May, former North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol was hired to become the next head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, ending an 11-year tenure with the Fighting Hawks that included seven trips to the Frozen Four.
Tapped to take his place was his assistant Brad Berry, a UND alumnus who spent nine years over two stints on the Fighting Hawks' staff. Berry first joined the staff in 2000, just months after his alma mater won its seventh national championship.
"I was just coming off of pro hockey; the crossroads of life, what do you do after you play. … I was just married, had two young children at the time, and everything goes through your wife as far as decision-making process," he recalled. "This one didn't go through my wife. It took me about .5 seconds, and I said, 'Honey, we're going back to Grand Forks.' "
And while this is Berry's first Frozen Four experience as the man in charge, his involvement in many of the Fighting Hawks' previous Frozen Four runs — Berry has been to six NCAA semifinals with North Dakota — makes him well aware of what's at stake tonight.
As he and the rest of the Fighting Hawks have come to find out, "close enough" is only satisfying for so long.
"It creates a little fire within yourself. … We weren't shy about talking about it. And some people may not like that, but that's just the confidence within our hockey group that we support each other and we have each other's backs," junior defenseman Troy Stecher said about their Frozen Four losing streak. "This is an opportunity we want to grab with both hands, and we're going to do everything we can to do that."
Contact Kelly Parsons at [email protected]. Follow @_kellyparsons.