—There were a few Blackhawks jerseys spotted in the crowd at U.S. Bank Arena on Friday, bright red sticking out against the greens, yellows and blues that dominated the mise en scene. Whether those individuals realized or not, they were watching the future of the organization, as five Chicago draft picks faced off on the first day of NCAA regionals in arguably the toughest bracket in the tournament.
North Dakota—the top seed and de facto host—opened the weekend with a 6-2 stroll past Northeastern, all the more impressive given the Huskies' unprecedented second-half run to claim the Hockey East title last weekend. Nick Schmaltz, Chicago's first-round pick in 2014, and Luke Johnson, a fifth-round selection in 2013, centered the Fighting Hawks' first two lines, while 2014 sixth-round pick Dylan Sikura played a top-six role for Northeastern.
The Huskies actually opened the scoring as Nolan Stevens took advantage of an untimely line change and wristed the puck past the goalie. But the Fighting Hawks' forecheck got to work, creating and sustaining offensive zone pressure until the fourth line was able to manufacture the tying goal less than 3 minutes later. Midway through the period, NoDak had built up an 11-5 shot advantage, and that's when Schmaltz got on the board for the first time with an assist on defenseman Tucker Poolman's goal. Late in the period, with the Hawks on the power play, Johnson gathered a rebound and buried the puck to give his team a 3-1 lead, ending an 0-for-7 drought with the man advantage.
North Dakota never looked back; by the midway point of the game, they had extended their lead to 5-1 on the scoreboard and 25-9 on the shot chart. Although Northeastern scored early in the third period, Schmaltz's line put the final nail in the Huskies' hopes with a pretty tic-tac-toe play in transition, as Brock Boeser found Schmaltz with a cross-ice pass, and Schmaltz served the puck on silver platter for Drake Caggiula's tip-in.
Although the two assists certainly stand out—Schmaltz now has 34 helpers in 34 games this season, fifth-most in the nation—it's the noticeable improvement at the defensive end of the ice that has the Blackhawks excited for the 19-year-old. Indeed, most of the chances created by "CBS Line" in the game—and throughout the season—were a result of tenacious checking to force turnovers at both blue lines and brilliant passing sequences to unlock the defense.
Johnson's line was mostly utilized to check Northeastern's top trio of Zachary Aston-Reese and the Stevens brothers, and that line did its job by establishing a heavy forecheck and winning the battle decisively at the dot. Sikura was able to show some playmaking skill on the left wing and while quarterbacking one of the Huskies' power-play units, and his role should only grow as Northeastern's program builds on a historic season.
The late game between Michigan and Notre Dame was an instant classic, pitting a defensively sound team against the nation's most dynamic offensive roster, highlighted by the NCAA's most devastating trio. Tyler Motte, the "M" in the "CCM Line" and the Blackhawks' fourth-round pick in 2013, once again was a force at both ends of the ice, while freshman defenseman Dennis Gilbert showed plenty of physicality while helping the Fighting Irish play stifling defense for 40 minutes. Notre Dame established a 2-1 lead, but for the second weekend in a row, the Wolverines proved that they can find an extra gear when the chips are down, battling back to force overtime and then prevailing 3-2 on Motte's winner.
In a fast-paced, evenly matched opening period, Justin Selman opened the scoring for Michigan off a set play, before Anders Bjork answered for Notre Dame with a top-shelf finish. There were plenty of hits from both sides in their 134th meeting, perhaps serving as a prelude to their future Big 10 rivalry (Notre Dame announced they would be switching conferences in 2017-18).
Just 24 seconds into the middle frame, Notre Dame forward and Illinois product Thomas DiPauli lifted a shot over Michigan netminder Steve Racine's shoulder, and from there, the Irish went into shutdown mode, limiting Michigan to just six shots on goal in the period; more importantly, the "CCM Line" of Motte, Kyle Connor and J.T. Compher was credited with just 2 SOG through 40 minutes.
A week ago, Minnesota had the Wolverines in a similar position—trailing by a goal in the title game of the Big 10 tournament. And once again, there was an immediate fight-back as soon as the puck dropped for the third period. Michigan survived an early penalty kill, then created chance after chance at the other end, but was denied each time by Notre Dame starter Cal Petersen. Midway through the period, defenseman Zach Werenski finally broke through with the tying goal after a give-and-go with forward Cristoval Nieves at the top of the circles.
The flow of the game sped up over the last 10 minutes, with both teams coming close and both goalies standing tall, but regulation wasn't enough. Michigan carried the play in sudden-death overtime, doubling Notre Dame in shots until Compher's no-look, behind-the-back pass found Motte in front of the net, and he did not miss on his 32nd goal of the season.
Although the "CCM Line" provided the edge that Michigan needed, Notre Dame managed to keep them quiet for large swathes of the game, a game plan that heavily featured Gilbert. The 2015 third-round pick was tasked with a primary shutdown role and found himself matched up against the Wolverines' top unit more often than not. In fact, the physical confrontations between Gilbert, who plays on the left side of the defense, and Motte, a right winger, created a tantalizing game-within-a-game between two highly competitive prospects. In the first half of the game, Gilbert was able to neutralize Motte with big body checks in the neutral zone and at his own blue line, and he patrolled the front of the net effectively as well. But Motte had the last word, gaining just enough separation from Gilbert's backcheck on the winning play.
Two prospects saw their seasons end, and the table is now set for a Saturday showdown between two of college hockey's best offensive lines. North Dakota vs. Michigan. CBS vs. CCM. Schmaltz and Johnson vs. Motte. Tune in at 5 p.m. CT on ESPN2 to view the future of the Blackhawks as they try to book a ticket to the Frozen Four in Tampa.