Reigning Champions re-identifying process to success

Photo courtesy Shannon Valerio

When pressure is high, critiques are intensified, and obstacles appear overwhelming, it’s easy to get derailed from the end goal in sight. To avoid detrimental setbacks, periodically resetting is advantageous; to reset, reflect and refocus. With national attention fixated on the reigning national champions, the top-ranked University of Denver Pioneers, for the duration of their subsequent season the program has faced such a drawback.Denver claimed its eighth national championship on April 8, 2017 in Chicago with a 3-2 victory over the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs. During the thriller, Jarid Lukosevicius became the first player to score a hat trick in the national title game since DU head coach Jim Montgomery did so in 1993 for the University of Maine.

With this weekend’s national championship rematch on the radar of the college hockey world, Montgomery’s candid concerns with the state of his current team are directed towards the lack of accountability present as opposed to the team’s incredible potential.

“I have to be honest, I hope he’s [Lukosevicius] not thinking anything about that [the hat trick],” head coach Jim Montgomery said. “I hope he’s thinking about the process that led to him having that success and the process that allows our team to have success because our inconsistency is what’s worrying me as a team right now and our commitment to the team. I think it’s more of a mindset than anything physically with us.”

DU is poised to repeat. In fact, they’re favored to do so. Denver entered the season as the near-unanimous No. 1 team with 82-of-84 votes between the two national polls (USCHO and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine). While the rarity of duplicating title wins is salient, history is an advantage for the Pioneers. With eight national championships, DU has clinched six of their eight consecutively; with titles in 1960 and 1961, 1968 and 1969 and the most recent pair, 2004 and 2005.

With a 7-3-2 overall record and 3-3-0 in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC), the Pioneers have taken their bye week to fine-tune their weaknesses and reflect on internal issues.

“We’ve been inconsistent, but I think realistically every game that we’ve lost this year we should have won and we were winning in,” assistant junior captain Troy Terry said. “That’s why it’s really hard for us to swallow, but it’s also nice just because it’s something we can fix. We should have won all of those games, but we had mental errors and breakdowns defensively. It’s stuff that we’ve really been working on the last couple weeks especially with last week off. We’ve really hammered down on it. We know how good of a team we can be. We’re all sick of talking about how good of a team we can be and we’re ready to just go be that team. We’ve all taken a lot of accountability and I think moving forward we’re over the whole mental errors and defensive breakdown stuff.”

Terry is one of the four NHL prospects from the title-winning roster to return for the 2017-18 season. Drafted in the Fifth Round of the 2015 Entry Level Draft by the Anaheim Ducks, Terry has developed a dynamic offensive rapport with Finnish sophomore Henrik Borgström. Borgström, a First Round Florida Panthers pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft leads the nation with 13 goals in 12 games (13-9-22). Terry boasts 2nd in the NCAA scoring 23 points on seven goals and 16 assists. Together the duo has largely contributed to DU’s top-ranked powerplay conversion of 30.5%.

“We do it in a little different ways,” Terry said. “Henrik can do some stuff that I’ve never seen before, he’s just an unbelievably skilled player. For me, when I’m having success it’s when I’m not trying to overcomplicate things. It’s when I’m making plays with my brain and using my stick. Coming back this year, we both had a lot of confidence going into it. After last year we both kind of expected ourselves to dominate games and to take over games. Hockey is a big game of confidence, we both have a high expectation of ourselves to take over games for this team and be big difference makers.”

The growth and development of Terry and Borgström over just one season is outstanding; as the duo works a rousing clinic across the ice weekend-to-weekend.

“I think when those two and it’s the same thing for [Dylan] Gambrell, when they really work hard they get rewarded,” Montgomery said. “I think ever since the Lake Superior State weekend, all three of them, I thought their games, their work ethic has gone to another level and so has their production. When your best players work hard usually the results come and they’re coming. Hopefully, the work ethic can be contagious for everyone else so we can get on the right page as far as being a cohesive team.”

After graduating nine seniors from the class of 2017, the Pioneers lost integral depth on their blueline, namely in former captain and Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher. Furthermore, current senior captain Tariq Hammond fractured his ankle in the national championship game that required two surgeries. Hammond wouldn’t return to DU’s lineup until the 11th game of the season.

“It’s been the other captains [Adam Plant and Gambrell] and myself just kind of trying to hold down the fort until our leader is back,” Terry said. “Our leadership group just feels complete with Tariq. I know it was hard on him before just trying to be the captain and not really being involved with the on-ice stuff. It was hard on him and it was hard on us. It’s huge to have him back and obviously from a hockey standpoint and from an emotional standpoint with our team.”

The Pioneers have all the ideal components to make a repeat championship run. The team is composed of the talent, the capabilities, and the experience (historically in their favor as well). Fulfilling the conquest next April will largely be attributed to DU’s discipline and integrity. As for now, the Pioneers’ greatest challenge is themselves.