CHICAGO — Following the first weekend of the season, Denver coach Jim Montgomery was deeply concerned about his team’s offensive outlook.
The Pioneers scored just three goals combined in back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Boston College in the IceBreaker Tournament.
It was a freshman from Helsinki, Finland who ultimately put Montgomery at ease. After remaining scoreless through his first three collegiate games, Henrik Borgström quieted Montgomery’s fears with two goals and an assist in the series finale of a sweep over Boston University. He followed that up with a goal and an assist in the next game at Michigan State.
"First weekend of the year, I was like, oh, my gosh, we're not going to score goals with the way our team played," said Montgomery.
"The second weekend, Henrik Borgstrom I think had [three] points out of our seven goals. They were special goals, goals that not most people score. Because he gets a goal leaning one way, he goes underneath the bar the other way," continued Montgomery.
Montgomery and the rest of the Pioneers hope there’s more magic on Borgström’s stick this weekend as they look to bring home the school’s eighth national championship in hockey. DU, the top seed in the NCAA Tournament, faces Notre Dame in the second semifinal on Thursday night at the United Center.
"It feels pretty amazing," said Borgström of playing on such a big stage as a rookie. "It's been a long way since the season started. It feels pretty amazing to be here in Chicago since it was a dream when I got to Denver. We just have to take care of business."
Montgomery is a coach who knows a thing or two about scoring big goals in the Frozen Four. As a player at Maine in 1993, he scored three goals in the national championship game win over Lake Superior. While Montgomery, now in his fourth season behind the DU bench, recognizes the offensive skill, it's the improvement in other facets of the game that has impressed him the most when it comes to his freshman superstar.
"He's played without the puck. When he wants to, he can be dominant on all 200 feet of the ice. It's just a question of whether he wants his motor to go," said Montgomery.
"I think everyone saw in the Penn State [Midwest Regional Final] game, from his first shift, the first time he took two strides on the ice, I knew I was going to play him over 20 minutes that night," continued the coach.
"I've improved my game on the defensive side. I did a good job against Penn State. I felt like I was in the game the whole game," added Borgström.
While the Pioneers are certainly more than just a one-man team, Borgström’s emergence as a bonafide go-to offensive catalyst in his rookie season has proven to be a major reason the team is one of the last four standing in college hockey.
Borgström's offensive upside is no secret. The Florida Panthers selected him with the 23rd overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.
"My offensive abilities," said Borgström when asked about the strengths of his game. "I can turn the game. I can make nice plays. My hands are pretty good. I can shoot too. I'm not that slow anymore."
Borgström's development over the past six months has been clear to all who've watched the Pioneers this season. Montgomery, the Spencer Penrose Award winner, is largely considered one of the best coaches in the game and will likely be behind an NHL bench someday. However, Borgström's work ethic and willingness to listen to his critics has helped him more than anything.
"They give me the tools, but I'm the one who has to do it. I heard a lot about what I was doing wrong in the defensive zone. Once I understood it and thought about it myself, I just went there and executed it," said Borgström.
The season hasn't come without growing pains and reminders here and there from his coach.
"Sometimes I still turn my back to the puck. Two weeks ago, Monty asked for one promise. He said, 'Would you please not turn your back to the puck anymore this season,'" said Borgström with a grin.
This is Borgström's first season in North America after having grown up and playing in his native Finland growing up. Traveling across the pond to play college hockey wasn't a decision he took lightly, but it was a commitment from the Pioneer coaching staff that made it easier.
"It was a tough decision. I liked how the coaches wanted me here. They showed a lot of interest towards me. That was the biggest thing for me," he said.
Transitioning to the North American style of play took a little bit of getting used to, including smaller ice sheets, but the pace of play over here was the biggest difference.
"In Finland the game isn't as fast. It's not as much north to south. It's more east to west. There are bigger rinks in Finland. The game is slower and you have more time there," said Borgström.
Deciding to play for Denver was one of the best decisions Borgström has made in terms of his hockey development. After losing their first two games of the year, the Pioneers have lost just five games since. Those kind of results have given Borgström the confidence his team can come out on top Saturday night.
"We don't have to do anything specifically [this weekend]. I feel like we're such a good team. I've never been on a team where I trusted so much in our ability to win. We all trust in our process. That is what will bring us success."