Photo courtesy John Leyba, The Denver Post
CHICAGO – You could see it in their body language. You could see it in their faces. As soon as North Dakota’s Nick Schmaltz tapped the puck past Denver goalie Tanner Jaillet for the game-winning goal at the Frozen Four in Tampa last year, heartbreak had a heavy crimson and gold tinge.
After failing to make it to the Frozen Four for more than a decade, Denver had finally made it back, only to lose in the final minute to their arch rival on college hockey’s biggest stage. Nothing can prepare you for that. The only thing you can do is pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back to work. And that’s exactly what the Pioneers did after last year’s Frozen Four heartbreak.
“It was heavy discussion,” DU head coach Jim Montgomery said when asked whether last year’s loss fueled this season. “First, it definitely fueled the fire, not so much the bitter loss, but more the success we had getting to that point…how our team came together gave us a blueprint on how we needed to act and behave in order to be elite.”
All year, Denver has been on a mission (from God, if you will) and they’ve played like it. Nothing has set them back and nothing has gotten in their way. From a winless opening weekend to a winless New Year’s weekend at Providence, DU has continued to forge ahead with one goal in mind: win a national championship.
Even another close loss to North Dakota in the NCHC Semifinals in Minneapolis a few weeks ago didn’t derail this team. They turned around the next day and skated Western Michigan out of the Target Center in the NCHC Third Place Game with six of their stars in suits watching from the press box.
The very next weekend in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Pioneers’ desire to return to college hockey’s mountaintop was on full display for the world to see. After tactically dismantling Michigan Tech with a 5-2 victory in the first round, they came back and shut down a Penn State team that had scored 10 goals against Union in the first round.
Denver knows what’s at stake. They’ve known it since the beginning of the year and whether they confirm it publicly or not, there’s been one thing driving this team more than anything else: 2016 heartbreak.
“It was a bad taste losing that game to North Dakota last year in the semifinals,” Denver captain Will Butcher said. “In the off-season, we kind of came together and just said next year is going to be our year. That’s kind of been a goal from the beginning of the year. Losing to North Dakota kind of started this pace for where we are now.”
All but seven players on Denver’s 2017 roster were in Tampa for the crushing loss to the Fighting Hawks. They know how it feels to leave the Frozen Four with disappointment. They know how it feels to have their dreams ripped away with a minute left on the clock.
That feeling is a reason why Denver is back in the Frozen Four this year and poised to win their eighth national title. That feeling, while soul-crushing and painful, drove the Pioneers to this Frozen Four. Crimson and Gold heartbreak might be the reason the NCAA Championship trophy will be draped in the same colors this year.