CINCINNATI—The most remarkable aspect of North Dakota's run to the Frozen Four this year isn't the caliber of the teams they had to go through to book their trip to Tampa, marking the third straight season they've finished as one of college hockey's last four standing. It's how easy they made it look. While Northeastern had momentum and underdog moxie on their side, and Michigan could boast an entire line of Hobey Baker Award finalists, the Fighting Hawks proved they were a cut above the competition, putting on a display of depth and experience to go along with undeniable skill.
The top storyline entering Saturday's showdown was the tantalizing showdown between North Dakota's "CBS Line" (Drake Caggiula, Brock Boeser and Blackhawks prospect Nick Schmaltz) and Michigan's "CCM Line" (J.T. Compher, Kyle Connor and Blackhawks prospect Tyler Motte). The Wolverines' top trio nearly created a goal right off the opening draw as Connor found Motte on a 2-on-1, but the 2013 fourth-round draft pick saw his one-timer stopped by Fighting Hawks goalie Cam Johnson.
After the early scare, North Dakota took over, testing Michigan netminder Steve Racine at every chance; midway through the period, the top seed had built up a 15-3 shot differential. While Michigan's sluggish start could be partially explained by a punishing overtime game against Notre Dame the night before, the Fighting Hawks kept coming in waves, getting defensemen involved in the attack and showing patience with the puck in the offensive zone. With just over a minute remaining in the period, defenseman Troy Stecher sent Caggiula down the ice on a breakaway, and the senior forward cleaned up his own rebound to give his team the 1-0 lead. By the end of the first 20 minutes, North Dakota had tripled Michigan on the shot counter, 24-8.
The second period was more fluid on Michigan's part, and Motte made a couple of big plays to help the Wolverines get back on track. First, while shorthanded, he blocked a point shot and took off down the ice with the puck, drawing a penalty at the end of the play. Then, as Michigan's short power play expired, Motte fed Compher with a backhand pass, and the captain didn't miss with a wrist shot from the center of the ice. Tie game.
Still, North Dakota's edge in depth became clearer as the game progressed, and it wasn't just the "CBS Line" creating havoc. Another late goal gave the Fighting Hawks another slim lead, and this time it was Luke Johnson—the third Blackhawk prospect featured in the game—turning a giveaway deep in Michigan's zone into an uncontested wrister past Racine. It was the junior's 11th of the season, extending his goal streak in NCAA tournament play to five games.
Johnson, who was selected one round after Motte in 2013, perfectly encapsulates the versatility that allowed North Dakota to thrive in a tough regional bracket. While his line was mainly tasked with checking opponents' top forwards—they started the game against the "CCM Line" and played head-to-head throughout—Johnson also saw regular shifts on both the power play and penalty kill, and contributed a goal in both games. And at the end of the weekend, it was likely his all-around contributions that earned him a spot on the all-tournament team for the Midwest Region (Caggiula and Compher were the other two forwards).
Michigan had trailed by a goal after 40 minutes in their previous two games—against Minnesota in the Big 10 tournament final, and against Notre Dame on Friday—and had found a way back each time. And so they did once more on Saturday, and Motte once again had something to do with that, drawing his second penalty of the match to give Michigan their first full power play of the weekend. With the man advantage, the "CCM Line" executed a slick passing sequence resulting in Compher netting his second goal of the night from the left circle.
While Michigan's top players were effective in driving possession, North Dakota's depth proved to be the ultimate difference, and the end came quickly: two goals in the span of 1:14, with North Dakota's second and third lines accounting for the scores. An empty-netter floated in by junior defenseman Paul LaDue spelled the end for the Wolverines. Motte, who became such an integral part of Michigan's NCAA-leading offense, finished his junior campaign with 56 points in 38 games, seven more than his freshman and sophomore years combined.
With Yale being eliminated in overtime by UMass–Lowell, thus ending junior forward John Hayden's season, that leaves three Blackhawks prospects still in contention for the national championship. Johnson will get a chance to make his third time a charm, and Schmaltz will have another opportunity to showcase his considerable development in front of a national audience. In addition, 2012 third-round pick Chris Calnan picked up an assist on Saturday to help Boston College book their berth with a 3-2 win over Minnesota–Duluth.
The other two teams will be determined after Sunday's schedule, which sees top-seeded Quinnipiac face off against UML and Denver take on Ferris State. The Frozen Four will take place in Tampa, Fla., on April 7 and 9.