GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Niagara’s Hobey Baker Award finalist outplayed his two counterparts from North Dakota for all but 57 seconds in Friday night’s NCAA Tournament West Regional semifinal in Van Andel Arena.
That brief stretch, however, prevented the Purple Eagles from authoring a fairy-tale start to the biggest weekend in the history of Division I hockey in Western New York.
Carsen Chubak turned aside 41 shots, some of them rather acrobatically, but it’s the two that slipped past the junior goaltender up for college hockey’s player of the year honor that proved to be the difference as one of the best seasons in Niagara history ended at the hands of North Dakota, 2-1, before 2,289 fans.
UND (22-12-7), the region’s second seed, faces No. 4 Yale in today’s 4 p.m. regional final. The winner advances to the Frozen Four in two weeks in Pittsburgh.
Yale stunned top-seeded Minnesota, 3-2, in overtime in the opening game.
Hobey Baker finalist Danny Kristo’s goal with 17:07 left in the third period completed North Dakota’s two-goal blitz that left the third-seeded Purple Eagles woozy for most of the final frame. UND outshot third-seeded Niagara, 20-7, over the final 20 minutes and 43-29 overall.
“We had an incredible run,” a disappointed Chubak said. “First three quarters of the season was probably one of the best in Niagara’s history. Too bad we couldn’t finish as strong as we started.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying.
NU (23-10-5), which made waves by becoming the first Atlantic Hockey Association team to earn an at-large bid to the tournament and has been ranked a program-record 18 straight weeks, showed flashes of top-10 team in the nation ability during the second period. The Purple Eagles seized momentum, started throwing their weight around and then took a lead on senior defenseman and co-captain Jason Beattie’s seventh goal in 105 career games.
The problem: The Purple Eagles only beat UND freshman goalie Zane Gothberg once on their 16 second-period shots despite having several quality scoring chances. Gothberg’s best stop came against junior Ryan Murphy’s partial breakaway with five minutes left in which Niagara’s leading scorer went to his patented forehand-to-backhand deke. It’s a move he scored on five times this season, but North Dakota’s Gothberg prevented him from making it six.
“It was nice to jump over the boards and have a partial break,” Murphy said. “I just tried to pull to my backhand as quick as I could and I think when that happened the puck rolled on me and affected my ability to get it upstairs.”
“We need to make it 2-0, 3-0 on some of the Grade A’s we had,” NU coach Dave Burkholder said.
“If we make it 2-0 even, I think the third period’s different. We kept a very good offensive team in the game.”
UND, which entered Friday as the nation’s fifth-best scoring team, seized the momentum at 1:56 of the third period as one of the six NHL draftees it boasts on the blue line beat Chubak, except it was the stay-at-home defenseman who found paydirt.
Senior captain Andrew MacWilliam’s shot through lots of traffic handcuffed Chubak and bounced in off his glove.
“I had a good look at it from the bench. ... A couple of guys skated through his line of vision just as it was making its way” to the net, Burkholder said. “It was a tough one.”
Not as tough to swallow as Kristo’s game-winner 57 seconds later.
Kristo scooped up the rebound of his own shot in tight, made a fake that Chubak bit on and then beat him on a wraparound to the other side.
“He’s really aggressive, that’s why I think he’s so successful,” Kristo said.
“I saw him coming out a bit, I didn’t think I had much room or anything to shoot at so I just tried to do a quick fake and a wrap.”
“It was a tough one. I just couldn’t get back to the far post on time,” Chubak said. “Both goals are would-be ones I’d like to not give up.”
Niagara, making its fourth NCAA appearance, last won in its tourney debut in 2000, when it beat New Hampshire.
In that game, the Purple Eagles scored timely goals and received spectacular goaltending from Greg Gardner, who parlayed a strong season and NCAA Tournament into becoming the first Niagara player to sign an NHL contract.
On Friday, Niagara got the goaltending from Chubak. It was the other ingredient vital for playoff success that led to the Purple Eagles’ sudden doom.
“He played great for us all game, he stood on his head,” said senior assistant captain Giancarlo Iuorio, who had a scoring chance in the final minute blocked by a UND defenseman. “When you play a team like North Dakota you need to score more than one goal.”
“Carsen’s had a terrific year,” Burkholder said. “We knew he’d have to be one of the game’s stars. He should have been the first star. ...
“We pull our goalie [at the end], have a couple chances, couple whacks at it. It wasn’t enough.”