Tickets punched to Frozen Four

UND advances to tournament after double-overtime victory in Midwest Regional Final

UND junior Connor Gaarder skates earlier this season. Gaarder buried the game- winning goal last weekend against Ferris State. File photo.

The UND men’s hockey team took the ice as the second overtime period began, turning its eager glances away from the scoreboard that showed a 26-8 Ferris State shot advantage since the beginning of the third period.

All it needed was one bounce of the puck into the net to punch a ticket to the Frozen Four in Philadelphia.

Nearly a minute and a half into the fifth frame, Connor Gaarder turned that dream into a reality.

A 2-1 UND victory over Ferris State in the Midwest Regional final last Saturday in Cincinnati sent the team that started its season 4-7-2 to the biggest stage in college hockey — the key resting within the hearts of the players.

“Things weren’t going our way,” UND senior captain Dillon Simpson said. “Everyone kind of kept their composure and stayed positive. No one stopped believing in that room, and I think that was one key thing to get our push in overtime.”

Zane Gothberg stood his post between the pipes, turning away shot after shot, knowing any that slipped behind him could end his team’s season.

The sophomore goaltender posted a career-high 44 saves, 27 of those shots after the conclusion of the second period.

When Gaarder tipped in a loose puck after a Paul LaDue point shot at 1:28 of the second overtime, Gothberg felt his efforts pay off.

“A flood of emotions I guess,” Gothberg said. “Once that happened, once (Gaarder) scored his goal, it’s just craziness I guess. Every emotion in your body is just excited, and every hair in your body is standing up because you’re so pumped for your team and stuff. Obviously it’s been a long road, and it’s a good payoff pitch to see this happen — for this opportunity.”

Flashbacks to November were easy to remember. In a team that knew its efforts weren’t going to be enough if it continued on the path that favored the losing column, a turnaround allowed it to believe in bigger possibilities.

“We certainly had all the pieces of the puzzle and stuff, it was just a matter of putting it in place and going from there,” Gothberg said. “Really, it all started with our coaching staff setting the tone — putting what is expected of us on a daily basis. We just had to go from there, so it’s definitely a long way from that point in the season.”

While it was Gothberg’s efforts in the net that rang loud, the sound of Gaarder’s goal echoed what has become a common theme this season.

Throughout the season, it hasn’t been one player or a few consistent names on the score sheet. It’s been a cast of many characters that pass the heroic honor to a different skater each night.

Saturday, it happened to be Gaarder’s turn.

“It’s fitting, probably, for this group,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “It’s a group that’s a bit of an unheralded group, maybe individually. But collectively, it’s a very good team. We’ve had different guys stepping forward on a regular basis, and we even said it coming in tonight. It’s probably going to be somebody different tonight than it was last night that’s going to end up in the spotlight, and that’s the case.”

That’s not to say it’s without consistency.

Gaarder’s persistence has stuck all season. It was simply showcased in a different matter on Saturday. During the NCHC third-place game, the junior forward and 2011 walk-on posted two goals en route to a 5-0 UND victory over Western Michigan.

“Connor Gaarder is that heart and soul guy,” Hakstol said. “He shows up every day, and he plays for the jersey. It’s nice to see him have that kind of reward and have that kind of a reward for our team.”

A chance to shine

North Dakota will play April 10 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia in the Frozen Four tournament.

With a 14-4 record in regional games, Hakstol will coach his team in its sixth Frozen Four appearance in his 10 years at UND. This will be the 20th time UND has clinched a spot in the national tournament.

The players are aware of the unfading tradition.

“Growing up, you just hear about North Dakota and North Dakota Hockey,” Gothberg said. “It’s just tradition, and it’s something we take pride in every single day, whether it’s in practice or during games and stuff. A lot of it starts with the coaching staff, just instilling that level of compete and that pride. It feels great. All our hard work is definitely going for a good cause.

“I know it’s a band of brothers here. We’re ready to rock, and we’re looking forward to it.”

Gothberg also knows the importance of the attitude of the team.

“We’re competing every night,” he said. “In the process, we’re really having fun and living a little.”

With clinching its eighth national championship at stake, North Dakota will compete against three other top teams in the country — but not without realizing what it took to make it there.

“We came into this game with a lot of respect for (Ferris State), and I think we leave with even more,” Hakstol said. “Beyond that, my biggest thought is how proud I am of (this team) and more importantly, how happy I am for them. They get an opportunity to experience a regional championship. But more importantly, move forward in the tournament.”

Elizabeth Erickson is the sports editor for The Dakota Student. She can be reached at [email protected].