CHICAGO-Destiny or not, there’s no denying that the Denver Pioneers were on a mission this year.
Arguably the most complete team in the country, Denver, determined to put last year’s Frozen Four loss behind them, spent most of the year on top of the polls, won the NCHC regular season championship, claimed the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, racked up postseason awards and are now once again on top of the college hockey world.
Jarid Lukosevicius had a second period hat trick and Tanner Jaillet capped off a brilliant season with 38 saves as the Pioneers held off a late Minnesota Duluth surge for a 3-2 victory on Saturday night at United Center, claiming their 8th national championship in front of 19,783 fans (second-largest crowd in Frozen Four history).
“It’s hard to put into words what this win means,” Denver defenseman Will Butcher said. “After that [North Dakota] loss, it seemed like everyone was focused from that day on to become better, become committed to excellence, like we always talk about.”
In yet another close game for UMD this season, Hunter Miska stopped 25 DU shots and got goals from Alex Iafallo and Riley Tufte, but it wasn’t enough to win head coach Scott Sandelin and the program their second title in three championship game appearances. The Bulldogs finished 14-5 in one-goal games for the year.
“We did what we had to do and couldn’t be more proud of our guys to battle right to the end,” Sandelin said. “It’s pretty much been their character all year. They’re a great group of kids. And they never quit, a strong will, and we came up just a little short.”
The Pioneers came out almost as strongly as they did on Thursday against Notre Dame, spending most of the first half of the period in the Bulldogs zone and recording the first eight shots on goal.
But Miska stopped all of those shots and Minnesota Duluth picked it up in the second half of the period, contesting Denver goaltender Tanner Jaillet and managing 10 shots on goal in the period to DU’s 13. Despite committing another first-period penalty (Dan Molenaar elbowing), UMD had a strong kill, allowing just one shot and not allowing Denver to set up.
In speaking of Miska, Sandelin said, “He’s grown through the year. He obviously had an outstanding freshman year for us. Big reason why we’re playing today. But he was ready.”
Denver’s offense woke up in the second period as Lukosevicius scored all three of his goals in a span of 7:39, with two of them coming in a span of 16 seconds. Iafallo continued his great postseason with a tap-in power play goal to bring the Bulldogs back within one, but Lukosevicius completed the third-fastest hat trick in championship game history with a rebound goal to push the margin back to two.
According to Lukosevicius, he hadn’t had three goals in a game since he was little.
“Midget hockey,” he said. “I didn’t get one in juniors.”
The hat trick by Lukosevicius was the first one in a championship game since 1993 when Denver head coach Jim Montgomery pulled off the feat while playing for the Maine Black Bears. He did it in a span of four minutes and 35 seconds, the fastest of all-time.
“I didn’t know it before,” Lukosevicius said when asked about the hat trick connection with his coach.
Early in the third period, Pioneers defenseman Tariq Hammond got tangled up with a UMD player along the boards in the DU zone when he appeared to suffer a serious leg injury.
The injury clearly deflated Denver, and Butcher talked about how it would affect the game from that point on.
“It’s terrible when a teammate and brother goes off like that. It was very tough,” Butcher said. “We knew [UMD was] going to come with a push. We just stuck with it.”
Play stopped for several minutes as trainers came to Hammond’s side. He was eventually taken off the ice on a stretcher. But as tough as it was, UMD needed to stay focused.
“Just keep pushing,” UMD forward Dominic Toninato said when asked about how his team was ignited on the bench during the delay.
Duluth became relentless on offense after play resumed, forechecking hard on a stunned Denver team and peppering Jaillet with shot after shot. But Jaillet, who came into Saturday with a 1.83 GAA, showed why he won the Mike Richter award for nation’s best goaltender.
UMD, which outshot Denver 17-3 in the third period, finally got back within one after an Avery Peterson shot clanked off the pipe and into the crease where Tufte jammed it in. They kept the pressure going after the goal and after Miska came off for an extra attacker, but were unable to muster the equalizer. As forward Karson Kuhlman put it, it was a position they were familiar with and had no doubt they were capable of staying in it to the end.
“We’ve been resilient all year. We’ve [come] back multiple times throughout the season,” Kuhlman said. “So I think we just learned lessons throughout the year and then almost paid off there.”
Jaillet’s effort in both the game and the season were one of the biggest reasons why the Pioneers returned to the top. When asked to describe the third-period Bulldogs onslaught, Jaillet replied, “[UMD was] coming strong. They were throwing the kitchen sink at us. We were able to weather that storm.
“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my team. They were blocking shots, making plays, chipping pucks out.”
After the game ended, in a very special moment, Hammond, who Montgomery suspected had a broken ankle, was lifted onto the ice and was able to join his teammates in the championship photo. Montgomery broke down when he saw his injured defenseman among his other players.
“I was overcome with emotion when I saw him come back out. But I’m not surprised,” Montgomery said. “Once [his ankle] was back in place, he wanted to hop out on the ice. Just shows the character of the individuals that we recruit at Denver.”
Given what Montgomery and the Pioneers went through last season after a tough Frozen Four loss to North Dakota, it seemed like they were destined to go to the top this year.
And now after adding Spencer Penrose Coach of the Year (Montgomery), Mike Richter Goaltender of the Year (Jaillet) and the Hobey Baker (Butcher) to their trophy case, they can now add a national championship trophy.
The quest to skate for championship #8 is complete.
DU goal at 4:44: Lukosevicius 13. Assists: Michael Davies 13 and Blake Hillman 7.
DU goal at 5:00: Lukosevicius 14. Assists: Troy Terry 22 and Davies 14.
UMD PP goal at 7:16: Iafallo 21. Assists: Joey Anderson 25 and Neal Pionk 27.
DU goal at 12:23: Lukosevicius 15. Assists: Dylan Gambrell 29 and Terry 23.
UMD goal at 14:39: Tufte 9. Assists: Avery Peterson 8 and Brenden Kotyk 10.
Power Plays: UMD 1-1, DU 0-2.
Shots on goal: UMD 40, DU 28.
2017 All-Frozen Four Team
Alex Iafallo (Minnesota-Duluth)
Troy Terry (Denver)
Jarid Lukosevicius (Denver)
Neal Pionk (Minnesota-Duluth)
Will Butcher (Denver)
Tanner Jaillet (Denver)
Most Outstanding Player:
Jarid Lukosevicius (Denver)