FARGO – So much for a rebuilding year in Denver.
With many key players gone from last year and a new coach behind the bench, the Pioneers made sure everyone knew they’re still one of the best teams in the country.
After all, there’s not much use arguing another trip to the Frozen Four.
Relying on their defense and goaltending once again, the Denver Pioneers withstood a tough challenge from upset-minded American International College and won 3-0 on Saturday night at Scheels Arena to win the West Regional championship.
DU head coach David Carle knew his team would have their hands full after the Yellow Jackets executed a perfect game plan to upend a powerful St. Cloud State team on Friday night.
“I’d like to say congratulations to [AIC head coach Eric Lang] and his staff, their program,” Carle said. “We beat a really good hockey team tonight.
“Very proud of our group. Excited for our program to be heading back to the Frozen Four again.”
The Yellow Jackets showed their victory over the Huskies was no fluke from start to finish on Saturday night. They played well on both ends of the ice, but ultimately couldn’t get the goals they needed as they saw their most successful season in school history come to an end.
“I thought our guys didn’t back down one inch,” AIC head coach Eric Lang said. “Proud of this group. I think they changed the landscape of AIC hockey.
“These guys made a bunch of memories this season for each other. They made a bunch of memories for me and my family, and I’ll be forever grateful to them.”
With both teams showing some outstanding defense and goaltending for the first 34 minutes of game clock, it was the Pioneers with another late second-period goal as Staub beat AIC goaltender Zackarias Skog over his right shoulder with a wrist shot out front.
“It kind of started with a scrum at the net,” Staub said. “I didn’t even look at the net; I just tried to get it off as quick as I could and I was lucky enough for it to go in.”
Once again, a late second-period goal gave Denver all the offense it needed to win. The real nail in the coffin, however, was Liam Finlay adding a huge insurance goal with 3:30 left in the game. He caused a turnover in the AIC zone and beat Skog with a wrister from the slot, putting the Pioneers up 2-0 with an outstanding individual effort.
Jarid Lukosevicius scored an empty-net goal with 1:23 left, sending the DU players on the ice and bench into a celebration frenzy.
Oddly enough, the goals by Finlay and Lukosevicius were the only two shots the Pioneers had for the whole third period. Their lone third-period shot on Friday was also an empty-net goal.
“That’s how we draw it up,” Carle joked. “I told our staff we doubled our shot output in the third period from tonight to last night. If we can get to four the next one, we’ll be happy.”
The Pioneers, who played in their fifth straight regional championship game, are in the Frozen Four for the third time in the last four seasons and the first time since 2017 when they won their eighth title in Chicago. Denver will take on the Massachusetts Amherst Minutemen, who beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 4-0 in the Northeast Regional championship, in one of the Frozen Four semifinals. Both teams have yet to allow a goal in the NCAA Tournament.
DU goal at 15:45: Colin Staub (7). Assisted by Ryan Barrow (9).
DU goal at 16:30: Liam Finlay (16). Unassisted.
DU empty-net goal at 18:37: Jarid Lukosevicius (19). Unassisted.
Power plays: AIC 0-5, DU 0-3.
Shots on goal: AIC 26, DU 24.
All-West Regional Tournament Team
Forwards: Joel Kocur (AIC), Liam Finlay (DU), Colin Staub (DU).
Defensemen: Les Lancaster (DU), Brennan Kapcheck (AIC).
Goaltender: Filip Larsson (DU).
Most Outstanding Player: Filip Larsson (DU).