CHICAGO- Denver makes its second straight Frozen Four appearance not the same, starry eyed Pioneers of 2016.
“It’s more of a business trip. We’re focused on tomorrow and the game (against Notre Dame),” said Denver sophomore forward Dylan Gambrell.
A year ago DU came to Tampa as a #2 seed, full of distractions and ceremonies in the first national semifinal appearance for the school since 2005. The players were able to bask in it all only for the Frozen Four to end with a heartbreaking, last minute loss to North Dakota that fueled the following 52 weeks’ drive to reach Chicago.
Few get the opportunity to learn the lesson firsthand. Even fewer return in back-to-back seasons.
Since 2007 only two schools (North Dakota, Boston College) made consecutive Frozen Four appearances before Denver did this year. It’s not easy. Parity strikes. So does a single elimination tournament where one off night turns off the light on months of progress.
Of the quartet making up the 2016 Frozen Four, two failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Only the Pioneers won a game.
Denver’s drive this season left the Pioneers, the last school to repeat as national champions in 2004-2005, as the overall #1 seed. DU is 16-1-0 in its last 17 games dating back to January 21st. On paper the team remains the favorite to take home the 2017 national championship awarded Saturday.
“The one thing that this team has done really well this year is just been focusing on the games. We don’t worry about what people have said about us or how good we are or aren’t,” said Hobey Baker hat trick finalist and senior defenseman Will Butcher. “We’ve just been focused on us and playing our game. That has led to success.”
As part of the quest back the Pioneers have succeeded in spite of normal stumbling blocks.
One reason teams struggle goes down to health and luck. After a season where the team remained healthy en route to the national semifinals in Tampa, 2016-17 has been anything but healthy.
“We have had injuries. I’ve had to go down and we missed Gambrell and Borgstrom at times,” sophomore Troy Terry said. “I think it just speaks to the depth of our team. It’s a big reason why we’ve been so good this year. We have so many good players where when one goes down everyone has to step up.
“It’s made us tougher as a team.”
Another reason why teams struggle the season following a Frozen Four is a lack of continuity. Players leave early or graduate. New faces get brought into the fold. That was true with Denver, whose turnover saw ⅔ of its 2015-16 top line depart early along with several key seniors like Grant Arnold, Nolan Zajac and Gabe Levin.
In their place remained enough continuity, however. Tanner Jaillet had another year in goal. Butcher once again headed up the blue line while Gambrell was joined by Terry and one of the new faces, freshman forward Henrik Borgstrom, in the point per game club.
“I have got such a great supporting cast with all the senior class,” said Butcher, the team’s captain, about Denver’s senior leadership. “It’s pretty easy when you have guys that can help.”
The Pioneers have been able to win where others failed. There’s been success. Denver head coach Jim Montgomery won the Spencer Penrose Award as the top head coach in college hockey. His team took home the Penrose Cup for the NCHC regular season.
It even includes a title on the world stage where Terry became a fourth line American hero with an elite shootout shot. (He compared the two, saying the mindset remains the same.) If you ask Denver how they succeeded where others failed, they aren’t straying far from the cliche tree. Terry, Butcher and Gambrell all go back to the team aspect.
“Our leadership group has done a great job with us all year keeping us focused and realizing the talent that we have here,” Gambrell said.
To finish the year with an honor not named for the Penroses, the returning Pioneers’ goal is to play as one. Doing so gotten them far enough to be a team that will wait to bask in the Windy City until the end of the weekend.
“It’s an honor to make it back here and everyone’s really excited, but we’re not going to be satisfied with just making it here this year. We want to come out and win it all, and I think our experience really helps us,” Terry said.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate