CHICAGO — It could be said that Denver exploited every advantage it had over Notre Dame on Thursday night at the United Center.
Better team speed. Puck possession. More depth. More purpose. The last change. All those things combined to provide a one-sided victory for the Pioneers to set up an all-NCHC national championship game against Minnesota Duluth.
"It's probably been the most dominant. We're playing well. I mean, you know, there's no doubt about it," said DU coach Jim Montgomery. "I'm amazed at the effort our team produced in a big-time moment against a really good college hockey team in Notre Dame."
Denver scored twice in the first and three more times in the second en route to a 6-1 win that will allow the storied program to play for its eighth national championship on Saturday night at 7 p.m. CT. Dylan Gambrell scored twice while Emil Romig, Henrik Borgström, Tariq Hammond and Evan Ritt also found the back of the net.
DU held a commanding 13-3 advantage in shots on goal after 20 minutes, but it was just before the midway mark of the opening period when it became clear there was no stopping the top seed.
The Pioneers spent what seemed like an eternity in the attacking zone, skating circles around the Irish and cycling the puck with ease. Romig finally put the puck in the back of the net to give the team a 1-0 lead and the rout was on.
"I think we have to give a lot of credit to our forwards. I think our forecheckers dominated and ate them up," said defenseman Will Butcher, a Hobey Baker Hat Trick Finalist.
"Whenever we have a good forecheck going, we seem to get the puck back a lot more. It's great when we get the puck back because we're a puck-possession team. When we get that more, we get that early jump, as you're referring to," continued Butcher, who assisted on the second goal of the night.
With such sustained control of the puck, DU limited Notre Dame to just 17 shots on goal for the game, making life easier for the blue liners. Notre Dame's leading scorer, Anders Bjork, was held off the board with just one shot and a -4 plus/minus.
"When our forecheck is going, makes the game easy for the D men because we can gap up and stay right on their forwards in our offensive zone. I think when our forwards are playing well, it makes our jobs as defensemen easier," Butcher explained.
Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson concurred that Denver's best defense was a good offense.
"Their defense was their offense. Their defense was their puck possession. Their puck management, they do a good job with their defensemen making good plays coming out of their zone. They do a great job in the 'O' zone where they possess the puck," Jackson said.
"That's how you hold teams down in shots. If the other team doesn't get the puck, they're not going to have many shots," continued Jackson.
Denver's ability to manipulate Notre Dame's weaknesses also came as a result of having the last change. Jim Montgomery set the stage by sending out his third line centered by Matt Marcinew to take the opening draw against Jake Evans and the Irish's top line. After winning the opening draw, Marcinew and Evan Janssen had a good shift in the Notre Dame end.
"I just knew I wanted Marcinew out against their best defensemen. They started Evans, so we started Marcinew's line. They knew how to set the tempo," explained Montgomery.
Denver's superior depth was on display throughout the game. Montgomery realized that his team's pace and speed could give serious problems to Notre Dame's bottom two defensive pairings. He did the best he could to get his top two lines out against Notre Dame's third and fourth lines and against their weaker defensive pairings.
"I knew [Dennis] Gilbert was their best defenseman. I didn't want him out against Gambrell's line and sticking Borgström out against their third pairing was important to us," Montgomery began.
"And we were able to get that with the last change, especially on the fly, because they would send out Gilbert in the 'D' zone all the time, so we'd send out Marcinew's line and we'd be coming with those next two lines knowing that he's probably not going to be out there," Montgomery continued.
Throughout the whole game, Denver seemed unstoppable. All four lines were rolling and playing with a purpose. This has been a team with a clear goal of winning it all after a disappointing Frozen Four semifinal loss against North Dakota in 2016.
"I think the guys know what's at stake and we've been pretty focused on the national championship from the beginning of this tournament," said Butcher, the team's captain.
"Certainly a great team, seemed like a team on a mission to me," Jackson added.
Denver and Minnesota Duluth split their NCHC regular season series at Magness Arena back in December. The Pioneers won 4-3 in the opener before the Bulldogs salvaged the split with a 3-1 win in the finale. Despite not playing in nearly four months, there is great familiarity between the two teams.
"I feel like we know them inside out. The players know each other extremely well. It's going to be a great college hockey game. NCHC opponents, two best teams consistently throughout the year in the NCHC, it's going to be a barn burner and a great show for college hockey," said Montgomery.