North Dakota comes into the Frozen Four as a decided underdog. Minnesota, Boston College, and Union all separated themselves over the course of the year as the top three teams in college hockey, with each spending some amount of time as number one in the polls. North Dakota on the other hand, had to scratch and claw just to get into the tournament as the last team to receive an at-large bid.
But the past six months of hockey mean very little now that we're down to the final three games of the season. North Dakota finds themselves just two games away from winning their first national championship since 2000. To give some context to that: the last goalie to win a national title at North Dakota was wearing a Dominik Hasek-style Cooper goalie helmet. So yeah, it's been a while. It would also be the first title under head coach Dave Hakstol, despite five previous trips to the Frozen Four.
So what will it take for North Dakota to win the Frozen Four?
Zane Gothberg. End of story.
Wait, you want more? Okay.
After a respectable performance in North Dakota's first regional game against Wisconsin--two goals allowed, one a power play goal, on 24 shots--Gothberg was simply outstanding in stealing the regional final against Ferris State. Gothberg stopped 44 of 45 shots in just over four periods of hockey against the Bulldogs. Moreover, clinging to a 1-1 tie, Gothberg kept the score even in the third period despite North Dakota being outshot 12-2 in the third period, and made 14 season-saving stops in the first overtime period to hold North Dakota in the game until Connor Gaarder could score an overtime winner early in the second overtime period.
Gothberg's play will be especially critical in Philadelphia because North Dakota absolutely cannot afford to get into a high-scoring shootout with any of the teams remaining in the field. North Dakota averages a respectable 3.07 goals per game(tied-18th nationally), but will be facing off against Minnesota, 3.51 goals per game, sixth nationally and then one of the two best offenses in the country in Boston College(4.10, first nationally) or Union(3.70, second nationally). All three teams allow fewer goals per game than North Dakota too, so it's not like those numbers are inflated by a run-and-gun style.
Statistically, North Dakota just doesn't match up well with any of the remaining teams, but goalies, especially in a single-elimination format, can be game-changers, and that's exactly what they will need Gothberg to be.
The other key for North Dakota at the Frozen Four will come in front of the opposition's net. North Dakota has lost just four times since Valentine's Day, and coincidentally, I was there to cover two of those games, and there was a very similar theme to both losses.
In both losses, North Dakota attempted a ton of shots, but nearly all of them came from the perimeter. North Dakota just doesn't have the type of dynamic forwards that can consistently create chances in the prime scoring area. But what they do have is a very good defense, and a group of forwards that is willing to get dirty and battle in front of the net. At their best, North Dakota is a team that is winning battles in front of the opposition's net, and turning those perimeter shots into screens, tips, and rebound goals.
Again, North Dakota doesn't have the firepower to trade scoring chance for scoring chance with the other teams in the Frozen Four, but they certainly have the grit and physicality to score enough ugly goals to take home the title.