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Schmaltz sends NoDak to title game with last-minute winner vs. Denver

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks
Nick Schmaltz scored with 56.8 seconds left in the third period to lift North Dakota over Denver, 4-2. (Getty Images)

Among all of the highlight-reel moments that 2014 first-rounder Nick Schmaltz has compiled this season alongside linemates Brock Boeser and Drake Caggiula, there may not be a more important—or exciting—entry than Thursday's late winner to send North Dakota to the NCAA title game on Saturday. They’ll face top-ranked Quinnipiac for their first shot at a title in 11 years, getting past the hurdle that stumped them six times since.

North Dakota and Denver staged a cagey first period, combining for just eight shots on goal despite two power plays for the Pioneers. Caggiula struck twice in 6 minutes in the middle frame to give the Fighting Hawks a two-goal lead heading into the third period. Through 40 minutes, North Dakota’s team defense was a big factor, blocking 16 shots while allowing just 13 on net.

Undaunted, Denver fought back with two goals of their own in the third period, banking the tying goal in off a defender’s stick. For a while, it looked like North Dakota might have let another opportunity to compete for a title slip.

That’s when the “CBS Line” struck.

With a minute left, Boeser won an offensive zone faceoff, and the puck slid to Caggiula. The senior’s initial shot was blocked, and Boeser collected the puck and sent a backhand attempt toward net. Instead of allowing the shot through to the goalie, however, Schmaltz—who had slipped behind his defender and was on the doorstep—caught the puck on his stick and flipped it into the net with 56.8 seconds left in regulation.

Denver fashioned some late opportunities to force overtime, but NoDak held on to cap off another impressive defensive effort, something the team has excelled at all season, ranking second in the nation with just 24.9 shots allowed per game. In the eventual 4-2 victory, they limited the Pioneers to 23 SOG, killing off four penalties along the way.

The one dark cloud to the proceedings was the loss of Luke Johnson, Chicago’s fifth-round pick in 2013 and the team’s best shutdown center. The junior, who has made the Frozen Four in each of his three collegiate seasons, suffered a leg injury in the second period and did not return to the game; he’s unlikely to be available for Saturday's matchup after compiling 21 points (11G, 10A) in 43 games this season.

Earlier on Thursday, Quinnipiac defeated Boston College 3-2 to confirm their own spot in the title tilt, ending Chris Calnan’s junior season. The 2012 third-round pick finished the year with 11 points in 29 games. The NCAA championship game will take place on April 9 at 7 p.m. CT, and the game will be broadcast live on ESPN2 and available via streaming on ESPN3.

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