Denver clinches #1 overall seed in NCAA Tournament with Third Place Game victory

Photo courtesy Daniel Petty, The Denver Post

It’s official. The top-ranked University of Denver Pioneers will enter the NCAA Tournament as the country’s #1 overall seed thanks to a 3-1 victory over the Western Michigan Broncos in the Third Place game at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff. The win also means the Pioneers finish in third place in the NCHC Tournament for the second straight year.

While most of the speculation had to do with where the Pioneers would play their first and second rounds and what seed they’d end up with, there was still a game that had to be played at the Target Center. And DU head coach Jim Montgomery took a cautious mentality with his lineup as he sat six of his regular players.

Tanner Jaillet, Will Butcher, Adam Plant, Henrik Borgström, Dylan Gambrell, and Troy Terry were all healthy scratches, but that wasn’t an issue for the Pioneers as they skated past the Broncos with surprising ease. Per usual, the Pioneers used stout defense and strong goaltending to keep the opposition from doing much offensively and they did just enough offensively to come away with the victory.

“We’re here to win a national championship now,” Montgomery said after the game. “After yesterday’s loss, I wasn’t risking any injury and I wanted players playing this game with a lot of enthusiasm and energy. I think you saw that from our group today.”

Goaltender Evan Cowley led the charge at the back and Colin Staub led the charge up front. Though his 2+ game shutout streak ended early in the second period, Cowley still stopped 28 shots while Staub made his goaltender’s effort stand up with two goals to pace the Pios’ offense.

The only time the game felt a bit precarious for the Pioneers was early in the second period when Mike McKee buried a feed from Aaron Hadley to tie the game at 1. But about a minute later, Liam Finlay ended any thoughts of a Western comeback with a snipe from the low slot to restore Denver’s one-goal lead.

“I thought Western was starting to take over the game there,” Montgomery. “They had momentum and we were spending a lot of time in our own end. [Finlay] was recruited to be a dynamic offensive player, someone who can take you out of your seats, I think you saw that every time he was on the ice tonight.”

Winning third place wasn’t exactly on Denver’s radar this weekend, though. After last night’s loss to North Dakota, Montgomery was clear about the changes he has planned this week, ahead of the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

“We’re going to need a big week of practice,” DU forward Evan Ritt said. “It’s on us as seniors to make sure we lead and make sure we have a good week of practice.”

Today’s victory takes some of the uncertainty out of the rest of the day as Denver has clinched the top seed heading into the NCAA Tournament, but there is still some concern about where Denver will play. Why the tension? North Dakota is hosting a regional in Fargo…In other words, no one wants to play in that region. Realistically, it’s looking like Cincinnati for Denver at the moment.

“We have no control over where we end up,” Montgomery said. “I don’t think the number one overall seed should go further east than Cincinnati. If we do, I’ll be really disappointed.”

All uncertainty goes away tomorrow morning, though. The NCAA Tournament Selection Show starts at 10 AM MT and will be televised on ESPNU.