Linemates Luke Johnson and Austin Poganski could have been the lone two players to see action in all 44 of the 2015-16 North Dakota Fighting Hawks games. The two NHL draftees on the heralded “Heavy Line” could have joined forces to flex the team’s depth in Saturday’s NCAA final.
The trouble was that Johnson fell victim to a freak open-ice encounter with first-line sizzler Brock Boeser in the preceding semifinal. His ensuing knee ailment would keep the 6-foot-0, 194-pound pivot out of commission for the title tilt.
But none other than Boeser, his linemates and Johnson’s associates would reaffirm that the Hawks were bigger than one player. The five regular members of the two troikas in question had a hand in every goal, as UND quelled Quinnipiac, 5-1, for the championship.
Boeser, the blistering freshman phenom who inadvertently terminated Johnson’s junior campaign two nights too soon, potted the eventual game-clinching goal. He would sandwich a playmaker hat trick around that, upping his team-leading season total to 60 points.
Poganski, whom Boeser had accidentally rendered the forlorn iron man in the Fighting Hawks’ 2015-16 chronicle, collected the final goal of the campaign. Appropriately enough, the primary assist on that ceremonious bonus dagger went to Rhett Gardner, the other “Heavy Line” staple.
Skill, sandpaper and steadfastness equaled splendor. Exactly what the Grand Forks faithful expected from a group whose leading faces tended to change out of the blue over a 366-day period en route to long-craved glory.
Picking up the baton
By virtue of an intervening Leap Day, Saturday’s 2015-16 finale in Tampa fell on the one-year anniversary of a Beantown letdown. On April 9, 2015, North Dakota entered Boston’s TD Garden as the lone repeat Frozen Four participant.
Upon brooking a 5-3 upset via Boston University, it would snuff out in the semifinal for the sixth time in as many Frozen Four appearances within a decade.
Junior goaltender Zane McIntyre — the Mike Richter Award winner and a Hobey Baker finalist — would have to settle for individual hardware. Head coach Dave Hakstol — he of 11 NCAA tournament passports in as many years on the job — was still bereft of banners in his tenure.
Both the dynamic masked man and the respectable bench boss could have come back to pursue redemption. But on May 18, Hakstol left his foundation to longtime assistant Brad Berry upon accepting the Philadelphia Flyers’ coaching vacancy.
On June 23, McIntyre — who had nothing left to prove, development-wise, in the college crease — bolted for the Boston Bruins farm system. And in between, another would-be senior in all-around defensive anchor Jordan Schmaltz signed a premature professional contract of his own.
Granted, revolving doors are a rite of passage for the established elites of college hockey. But that much personnel overhaul, in each of those positions and of that collective caliber all at once?
It would take a unique winning culture being a unique winning culture to maintain, let alone polish off, what the departures had piloted the core group to.
For every UND game involving Poganski this season, there was one that did not feature goaltender Matej Tomek. Drafted by Philadelphia with the 90th overall pick four days after McIntyre inked his pact, the Slovak sensation was the logical heir-apparent entering 2015-16.
Even at the midseason respite, pundits were preserving the notion that an offseason injury would give way to deferred winter burgeoning.
On Dec. 30, Dave Dondoneau of American Sportsnet acknowledged the proficient seat-warming output of Cam Johnson and Matt Hrynkiw. But he quickly turned the subject back to Tomek, posing the simple question, “Could the best be yet to come?”
For the program, it was. The sophomore Johnson, who had his own health-related sideline stint in October, would cement the starting job in his own right.
Part of that is a credit to the smoothly structured support system Berry built before him. But no netminder finishes with a 24-4-2 record, .935 save percentage and 1.66 goals-against average without any influence of his own.
Johnson’s final GAA ranked second in the nation, behind only Yale’s Alex Lyon. His save percentage tied him for fourth with two others, including new Richter recipient Thatcher Demko. He emboldened both of those numbers by limiting every NCAA tournament opponent to a maximum of two goals.
And he got rewarded for that when his dynamic skating mates refused to fizzle the same way their counterparts did.
CBS is best
The indispensable vitality of depth and contributions from the blue-line brigade does not equate to reduced expectations for one’s usual offensive suspects.
Poganski and company earned overdue attention for curtailing Michigan and Denver, in particular, in the national dance. Stetcher seamlessly succeeded Schmaltz as the defense’s zone-to-zone pilot.
But Boeser, undrafted senior Drake Caggiula and crafty sophomore center Nick Schmaltz remained the go-to finishers. Had the “CBS Line” not stayed in character, the checking unit’s muffling of Michigan’s “CCM Line” or Denver’s “Pacific Rim” unit may have amounted to nothing of note.
All three linemates touched the puck off a post-icing draw en route to Schmaltz’s nimble, last-minute game winner in Thursday’s semifinal. All three would garner credit on Caggiula’s first dose of insurance in Saturday’s third period, the senior’s second multi-goal stanza of the weekend.
Unlike your conventional 21st century UND puckster, Caggiula had everything to prove on the ice all the way through commencement. He performed accordingly, with and without the two uber-talented underclassmen.
It would not be a stretch to speculate that all three first-line forwards have played their final respective games as Fighting Hawks. The Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks brass may decide that Boeser and Schmaltz, respectively, need a new challenge at the AHL or NHL level.
But that potentiality, in tandem with a trophy, is just UND hockey. Individual gems — established or emerging — preserving the lore of the laundry while they can.
No matter who is available or unavailable, and no matter how abruptly.