BOSTON – Like they were able to do for much of Thursday against the Michigan Wolverines, the Denver Pioneers needed to play their game.
For most of the first 40 minutes, Minnesota State-Mankato kept them off their game like they did against Minnesota. But once the Pioneers saw an opening, they jumped on it. The floodgates opened from there, and Denver once again reigns as the champion of college hockey.
Five different players lit the lamp in the third period, igniting the rally for the Denver Pioneers as they came back to thump the Mavericks 5-1 on Saturday night at TD Garden, winning their ninth title in front of 17,850 fans.
“Words don’t describe the feelings. I’m so proud of our team and what they were able to accomplish this year,” said Denver coach David Carle, who at age 32 became the fourth-youngest head coach to win a national championship. “I can maybe count on one hand the amount of bad practices we had. They just worked all year, believed in each other all year, and we faced our biggest test tonight.”
Not too many people believed the Pioneers should have been this good or should have been here in Boston. But it’s hard to argue with knocking off the top two seeds in the NCAA tournament in the Frozen Four – and two very good teams at that. But they did, and the plane ride back to the Rockies is going to be a fun one.
“They made us earn it,” Carle said. “And you gotta earn this trophy. And our guys earned it tonight. And we are so proud of them.”
Ryan Barrow, who tied the game early in the third period and essentially began the rally, set the program record for games played with 168 after initially arriving after the 2017 season, which was the last time Denver won the title. He’s probably happier to etch his name in Pioneers history in another way, however, by being part of the record-tying team.
“Took five years, but we’re here now,” Barrow said. “Unbelievable feeling.”
Yet another dream season came to a crashing halt for the Mavericks, who completely unraveled defensively after Barrow’s tying goal and couldn’t recover. A second consecutive Frozen Four after not winning an NCAA tournament game at the Division I level at all prior to last year is something to be proud of, though. Things keep getting better for a Mankato program that had never even tasted this kind of success before head coach Mike Hastings took over before the 2012-13 season.
For ten years, Hastings has done an unbelievable job turning Minnesota State into a tremendous power in college hockey. In that timespan, no team has won more games than Mankato. Despite another heartbreaking setback in the Frozen Four, Hastings and his team still won 38 games on the year and are officially on the college hockey map if they weren’t before. And they should be.
“Incredibly proud of them because they’ve gone to work every day,” Hastings said. “And so the ride they took our staff on and our program on was special.”
Hobey Baker winner Dryden McKay made 15 saves in his last game for the Mavericks.
Denver forechecked well in the first half of the period, making McKay hold his ground. But he only faced three Pioneers shots. Meanwhile, the Mavericks took control of the second part of the period, drawing a Mike Benning trip for a power play and cashing in on it on a Sam Morton rebound goal.
The Pioneers continued to be held in check, but Carle wouldn’t let his team lose their cool despite the one-goal deficit that held up after 40 minutes.
“I think it was just, obviously, like, they were outplaying us, but at the end of the day they were only up 1-0. So one shot changes the entire outlook of the game,” Barrow said.
Barrow tied the game at last for Denver early in the third on a rebound, and Benning followed up not long after with a one-timer blast from the left circle.
“I saw a shot and took it. Went with my gut,” Benning, the Frozen Four’s Most Outstanding Player, said.
At that point, Hastings knew his team was reeling.
“Once we gave up the first one, I thought we started leaking oil a little bit and couldn’t stop the bleeding,” Hastings said. “And then we started chasing the game a little bit.
“I thought we had a good 40 and not a great last 20.”
Massimo Rizzo scored with six and a half minutes left to increase the lead to 3-1, and at that point it felt like the Mavericks weren’t going to rally. That didn’t seem likely a mere thirteen-and-a-half minutes of game clock before, and suddenly the Pioneers were in complete control.
“We just couldn’t find a rhythm again,” Hastings said.
Brett Stapley and Cameron Wright each had empty-net goals in the final 2:32 to cap the game’s -and season’s – scoring.
The Pioneers finished 31-9-1 this season, and they’re now tied with Michigan for the most all-time championships. The Mavericks conclude at 38-6, and they saw their 18-game winning streak halt.
MSU goal at 13:59: Sam Morton (9). Assisted by Lucas Sowder (16) and Brendan Furry (32).
DU goal at 4:46: Ryan Barrow (8). Assisted by Benning (23) and Devine (16).
DU goal at 7:33: Benning (15). Assisted by Shai Buium (15) and Cameron Wright (11).
DU goal at 13:34: Massimo Rizzo (12). Assisted by Carter Mazur (23) and Justin Lee (13).
DU empty-net goal at 17:28: Brett Stapley (18).
DU empty-net goal at 18:00: Wright (23). Assisted by Mazur (24).
Power plays: DU 0-3, MSU 1-1.
Shots on goal: DU 20, MSU 28.
Frozen Four All-Tournament Team
Carter Savoie – Denver
Ryan Barrow – Denver
Sam Morton – Minnesota State
Mike Benning – Denver
Jack McNeely – Minnesota State
Magnus Chrona – Denver
Most Outstanding Player:
Mike Benning – Denver