70 Years of DU Hockey History Part IV: The Current Era – 2013-2019

Our own Puck Swami has authored a four-part historical retrospective for the 70th anniversary of the DU Hockey program. This is Part IV. Part One can be found here, Part II can be found here and Part III can be found here. While these stories run far longer than our usual stories, remember that 70 years is a lot to cover. Enjoy!

DU Captain, all-American and Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher (at left with NCAA Trophy) led the 2017 Pioneers to the program’s eighth NCAA Championship. Photo: Robin Alam

Initially, on April 1, 2013, DU sent out a press release indicating that George Gwozdecky had ‘resigned’ as DU’s head hockey coach. It was taken in jest by many DU fans, who assumed it was an April Fools’ Day prank. But just a few hours later, DU sent out a tweet that Gwozdecky was “released from his contract today. We thank him for his 19 years of service.” In short, the legendary coach had not resigned but was fired.

In the days that followed, DU did not release its rationale in public but told high-level donors there were three primary reasons that prompted the firing. First was performance, especially the two seasons following the 2005 NCAA title when DU failed to make the NCAA Tournament, plus the five NCAA first-round losses between 2008-2013. The second was a years-long contract extension dispute that was never resolved. And finally, there was a perceived loyalty issue around Gwozdecky’s 2010 postseason “consulting” with Ohio State.

Whatever the reasons, much of the DU fanbase was shocked and angered by the dismissal — and rightly so. Gwozdecky had won two NCAA titles and resurrected the DU program from the grim late-Backstrom and Serratore years in the 80s and early 90s, taking it to an upper-echelon 20+ win-per-year program for the previous 12 years. In the minds of many DU fans, a coach like Gwozdecky had earned the right to set his own career terms. Fans don’t run college athletic departments, however, and contract/personnel disputes are part of the reality of the business and sports world. “Gwoz” was gone, and the fans were angry.

DU understandably laid low through some of the initial fan blowback, while it continued its coaching search, starting with college coaches such as former DU assistant Seth Appert (then head coach at RPI), David Quinn (then assistant coach at Boston University) and Greg Brown (then an assistant coach at Boston College), but decided on Jim Montgomery, an up-and-coming USHL head coach who was winning U.S. junior championships in Dubuque, Iowa.

On paper, it seemed like a very intriguing hire, although most DU fans were unfamiliar with the then-43-year-old Montrealer. Montgomery had an 11-year NHL and minor league playing career where he learned from a number of top NHL coaches. He also was an all-American, record-setting scorer at the University of Maine (301 career points) who’d won the 1993 NCAA title and NCAA Tourney MVP as a player. He had also served as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame and an assistant coach at RPI before jumping to the USHL for a head coaching job in Dubuque.

Jim Montgomery, at center in business suit, would join the Pioneers as head coach in 2013, replacing a legend in George Gwozdecky. Photo: NCAA

‘Monty,’ like Gwozdecky, was also shaped by his father, Jim Montgomery III, a former 1956 Olympic boxer for Canada, and by the streets of Montreal, where the English-speaking Montgomery grew up in a primarily French-speaking neighborhood of the city. Montgomery’s older sister by a year, Lisa, described Monty’s father’s tough-love influence on her brother Jim in a 2019 article in The Athletic:

“Our dad… he believed in everyone’s potential…What he couldn’t take is when you wasted that talent and didn’t work in a way that was smarter than harder. There was no such thing as ‘can’t’ or ‘try,’ it was ‘do it’ or ‘don’t do it,’ and be honest about it…My dad was a force,” she said. “Like, a complete force. My brother [Jim IV] always wrapped himself in that blanket…My dad didn’t tolerate liars and we were taught not to listen to bullshit — be able to detect it but be kind to people because you never knew what they were going to say. My brother is very similar now.”

Montgomery’s father, Jim Montgomery III (seen here center left in boxing gloves) was a 1956 Olympic boxer for Team Canada. His ‘tough love’ philosophies shaped his son. Photo: Montgomery family via The Athletic

Monty inherited a tough assignment at DU. Not only did he have to win over the players in the DU locker room who were all recruited by Gwozdecky and his staff, but he also had to win over the DU fanbase, most of whom were either angry about (or at least did not approve) of the Gwozdecky firing. That said, Monty had a plan when he arrived. He saw Denver as a very traditional power, and he embraced DU’s traditions, hockey alumni, and most of the great things that Gwodecky and his staff had built over the years. Most importantly, he embraced the team speed, skill and transition hockey excellence that Gwozdecky had crafted and honed as DU’s playing identity. Monty quite correctly figured out that his job was to tweak rather than rebuild, and to instill his culture to enhance and accentuate the qualities that were already present in DU’s pedigree, systems and personnel. Montgomery also retained Gwozdecky’s chief assistant, Steve Miller, for recruiting and first-season continuity and help guide the program into the first season of NCHC play.

But Montgomery was also different from Gwozdecky in some ways. Gwozdecky had built and employed a very smooth general/CEO model over the years, relying on his assistants to be closer to the players. Gwozdecky, the son of a doctor, also spoke in an articulate, polished coach-speak style that could be seen by some as somewhat aloof. Gwozdecky’s mantra was focused on playing hard, smart and together.

Monty on the other hand, had a was bit more candid in public than Gwozdecky, and perhaps a bit more raw and direct. He believed in building his team culture relentlessly centered on an on-ice strategy he called “The Process”— later memorably (and now perhaps permanently) misspelled on a team whiteboard as “Proscess” by Monty’s young then-assistant coach, David Carle, which soon became the new DU team mantra.

Monty’s “The Proscess” (sic) is a series of key success factors preached to his teams.                Photo: The Coaches Site

After losing a number of Gwozdecky recruits to professional contracts like standout defenseman Scott Mayfield and presumed starting goaltender Juho Olkinuora, Monty’s first team – the 2013-2014 Pioneers – had a middling first regular season, low-lighted by a 4-1 home loss to Canisius that did little to inspire the home fans. DU finished 6th place out of 8th in the brand-new NCHC. There were grumbles from some of the Gwozdecky fans that Monty’s team could not seem to win more than three games in a row. But something special happened when the Pioneers entered the NCHC playoffs in March.

As the sixth-place NCHC team, DU was sent to Omaha for the first round of the NCHC playoffs. DU hadn’t been on the road for the first round league playoff since 2003, as Gwozdecky’s teams after 2003 simply didn’t finish in the bottom four in the league. In Omaha, Denver lost the first game to the Mavericks 4-3 but came back to win games two and three by rallying behind all-American goalie Sam Brittain. DU won by convincing scores of 5-1 and 2-0, earning the upset series win and the unexpected ticket to Minneapolis, Minn. and the Target Center for the inaugural NCHC Frozen Faceoff Tournament.  There the Pioneers earned even more respect by edging Western Michigan, 4-3 in the semifinals.

To put a cherry on top, Denver achieved the 20-win per season standard level that Gwozdecky’s teams had maintained each year going back to 2001 (affectionately dubbed the ‘Tenzer Streak’ after DU’s Director of Hockey Operations David Tenzer, who survived multiple DU coach turnovers over the years. The streak currently sits at 19 seasons.) by beating 8th-place Miami 4-3 to win the first NCHC Frozen Faceoff Championship. The Pioneers scored two goals in a seven-minute span of the early third period (by Zac Larraza and Emil Romig) to break open a 2-2 tie, and turn it into a 4-2 Denver lead.  While Miami was able to cut the lead to 4-3 in the final two minutes, the Pioneers held to win the NCHC Championship and the NCAA auto-bid that came with it. Suddenly, Monty’s first season was seen as a success by the Denver faithful. Getting DU to 20 wins and gaining an NCAA bid won many Gwozdecky fans over, as DU had gained the same level of achievement as most of the post-2005 Gwozdecky teams did. Expectations for the NCAA Tournament both internally and externally were, shall we say, not high. Everything after the Frozen Faceoff was gravy.

The Pioneers were sent to Worcester, Massachusetts, the site of DU’s previous NCAA tourney appearances in 1995, 1997 and 1999, seeded as a four-seed for the 2014 NCAA Tournament. They would be matched up with the top eastern seed, the Boston College Eagles, playing just 45 minutes from their Chestnut Hill, Mass. campus. The opening round game wasn’t even 30 seconds old when BC’s Johnny Gaudreau, now an NHL star forward in Calgary, scored the first of a three-goal hat trick on the Pioneers.

The Eagles would go on to score five more unanswered goals from the first into the second period, as BC opened up a 6-0 lead on Denver, the largest opponent NCAA tournament lead on the Pioneers since Cornell horsewhipped DU 7-2 in the 1972 NCAA semifinal in Boston Garden. Gaudreau, who had once been coached by Montgomery in Dubuque in the USHL (juniors), not only scored his three goals for BC, but he also assisted on the other three BC markers for a six-point night, certainly the greatest individual performance against Denver in DU’s long and storied NCAA tournament history dating back to 1958.  The Pioneers did score the last two goals of the game in the second and third periods from Trevor Moore and Evan Janssen respectively, but the BC damage had already been done, making the final score 6-2, and ending the Pioneers’ season. Denver spent much of that season in the bottom quarter of the top 20, falling out for a few weeks in March, and finished the season ranked #17. But the Pioneers have not fallen out of the top 20 since March 17, 2014, which is the longest streak in the NCHC.

The Pioneers did everything they could to stop BC’s star forward, Johnny Gaudreau (#13 ), but “Johnny Hockey” had a six-point night, including a hat trick to dump the Pioneers out of the 2014 NCAA East Regional in Worcester, Mass. Photo: Ottawa Citizen

With the Pioneer faithful now mostly convinced that DU’s position as a 20+ win, NCAA tournament-level program was secure, Monty and his program would play capably but not impressively the next regular season. While the Pioneers would once again not have a long winning streak during the regular season in 2014-2015, neither would fall prey to a long losing streak. They finished the season at 24-14-12, good for fourth place in the NCHC, up two places from the previous season and qualifying for home ice in the NCHC playoffs. Denver fans also took comfort in the Pioneers’ four games of dominance over CC to win the Gold Pan.

In the NCHC first round, the fourth-place Pioneers dispatched fifth-place Minnesota-Duluth 4-3, and 4-0, earning a trip back to Minneapolis to defend their Frozen Faceoff trophy from the previous season. However, the Pioneers would lose to Miami in the semifinal.  Miami took a 2-1 first period lead, and doubled it to 4-1 in the second period. The Pioneers showed some life by cutting the lead to 4-3 on goals by Dan Doremus late in the second and Trevor Moore early in the third period, but Miami scored the final two goals in the late third period to take the win, 6-3. Miami had six different goal scorers and went on to win the Frozen Faceoff, while the Pioneers got a measure of revenge by beating North Dakota, 5-1 in the consolation game, even resting a number of key players for the NCAA Tournament that the Pioneers knew was coming the following week.

DU, as a #2 NCAA seed, was sent to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center Providence, R.I. (site of DU’s 1986 Frozen Four appearance when the building was called the Providence Civic Center) to face #3 seed Boston College, just an hour from Providence. The game would be a rematch of the prior year’s first round DU vs BC regional match in Worcester, Mass. But this time, BC would not have Johnny Gaudreau, who had signed with Calgary in the NHL after the previous season. In 2014-2015, it was the Pioneers who would blitz the Eagles with 14 shots in the first period, taking a 2-1 lead on goals by two-time all-American defenseman Joey LaLeggia and all-American Trevor Moore. The Pioneers were able to extend the lead to 4-1 in the second period with two goals in the span of a single minute between 8:05 and 9:04, by future all-American Will Butcher and captain Grant Arnold, to finish off the Eagles. The teams traded goals in the final period to make the final 5-2, but the Pioneers were clearly dominant.

That DU victory set up a controversial Regional Final between Denver and Providence College, playing in downtown Providence, only a couple of miles from PC’s own campus.  PC was not the host of this regional – Brown, who had not earned an NCAA Tournament berth, was the host – in this tournament and in many fan opinions, probably should have been sent elsewhere by the NCAA.  Therefore, Providence, a #4 seed who barely squeaked into the NCAA tournament, was lucky to be gifted a chance to play in its home city, ostensibly to boost tournament attendance. PC took advantage of this geographical and seeding gift, and behind its home fan base, had upset top-seeded Miami 7-5, and would then face Denver for a chance to go to Boston for the Frozen Four.

The DU vs PC NCAA regional final was close all the way to the end, with both teams playing well. Providence took a second period 1-0 lead on a goal by Noel Acciari, and the Pioneers tied the game on Joey LaLeggia’s final college goal at the 7:52 mark of the third period, a power-play goal with assists to Quentin Shore and Will Butcher.

With the Pioneers seizing the mid-third period momentum, a controversial call would change the entire season for Denver. Joey LaLeggia, DU’s Hobey Baker finalist, was seeking to impede PC’s Steve McParland at mid-ice when McParland’s lowered head came into contact with LaLeggia’s arm at the 9:53 mark. The referee decided it was a contact-to -the-head penalty on LaLeggia and Providence was given a 5-minute major power play, on which LaLeggia, DU’s best player and leader, was not only penalized but kicked out of the game, thus ending his DU career only a few minutes after he had scored the game-tying goal.

With a disconsolate LaLeggia sitting in DU’s dressing room, Providence took advantage of the penalty and scored what would be the game-winning goal with just over five minutes to go, as Brandon Tanev found twine behind DU goalie Tanner Jaillet. PC would add a couple of empty-net goals in the final minutes as DU tried valiantly to come back, but DU’s season ended with a 4-1 final loss, while PC would go to win the NCAA title in Boston – thanks in large part to another lucky break courtesy of BU goalie Matt O’Connor, with its lucky fans never having to travel more than an hour to see them play in the NCAA tournament.

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This contact-to-the-head major penalty late in the game by Denver star Joey LaLeggia enabled Providence College to score the game-winning power-play goal to end Denver’s 2015 NCAA Tournament run, as well as ending LaLeggia’s sterling Denver career with a game ejection. Photo: NCAA

“Live, I thought it was a great hockey play,” Denver coach Jim Montgomery told College Hockey News, referring to LaLeggia penalty. “With the new rule about head contact, and we have to be very careful about concussions, no matter the position…When I played, the onus was on the player hurt to make sure he doesn’t put himself in a vulnerable position. That’s changed, and the way the game is played and coached has changed because of it. I think by the rule, if the contact is to the head, that’s the rule, so it’s the right call.”

Despite the tough ending for Pioneer fans, Denver’s team performance had taken another step forward under Monty with the two-place NCHC finish jump from sixth to fourth in the league standings, and with DU reaching the NCAA regional final, one game farther than the previous season.

In 2015-2016, DU started the year with an 8-3-2 run but ran into a six-game winless streak from December into early January. The Pioneers were able to snag a couple of overtime ties at home against Notre Dame in early January, which restored some confidence, setting up an incredible run where the Pios would only lose only once in the next 16 games, going 14-1-1 for the rest of the regular season.

DU hosted the Battle on Blake, beating rival CC 4-1 before more than 35,000 fans at Coors Field in Denver. Photo: Colorado College

The highlight of that stretch came on Feb 20th, when DU hosted rival Colorado College at Coors Field in Denver, home of Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies. Called the “Battle on Blake”, for the stadium’s address on Blake Street, it would be DU’s first (and still only) outdoor game in program history. The 35,144 people who came out to Coors Field for the Battle on Blake was the largest gathering of DU fans in history and the largest DU-hosted sports crowd ever, besting the previous mark of 31,000+ at the DU vs. Wyoming football game way back in 1949 at DU’s old long-gone Hilltop Stadium. It was also the biggest DU home hockey crowd in DU history — beating the 1996 Denver Cup DU vs CC game which drew over 16,000 to the now-demolished McNichols Arena in Denver.

The “Battle on Blake” game will live in Pioneers’ fans hearts for decades, as the Pioneers coasted to a 4-1 victory over the lowly Tigers. It was DU’s fourth straight win over CC that year as part of another Gold Pan trophy-winning year for the Pioneers. The game crowd size perhaps was helped by unseasonably warm weather that late February day in Colorado. Gameday temperatures topped 60 degrees with bright sunshine, helping to convince a large, last-minute walk-up crowd of 10,000 more people beyond the projected ticket sales estimates of 25,000.

The Pioneers debuted special throwback jerseys for the Battle on Blake, based on the program’s very first jerseys in 1949. Photo: University of Denver

As it turned out, players with ties to Colorado were a part of all four DU goals. Jarid Lukosevicius redirected a feed from Centennial’s Grant Arnold for Denver’s first marker, while Colorado Springs’ Colin Staub scored on a wraparound, also in the first period. Former Colorado Thunderbird star Dylan Gambrell set up the third marker – a power-play goal in the third period scored by Danton Heinen – and scored another third-period power-play goal himself. DU coach Jim Montgomery also added to the Colorado legacy of the game by inserting junior goalie Evan Cowley of Evergreen to play in the game’s final five minutes. The commanding 4-1 victory improved DU’s winning streak against CC to eight in a row, sweeping the series for the second consecutive year, clinching home ice for the NCHC playoffs, and continued the Pioneers’ surge toward another 20+ win season and a ninth consecutive NCAA berth.

“I didn’t know there were that many DU jerseys in Denver. It was awesome to see,” said DU coach Jim Montgomery of the DU fan turnout after the win.

The Pioneers would finish in a second-place NCHC regular-season tie that year with St. Cloud State before sweeping Omaha in the NCHC first-round series, 5-2 and 4-3 (OT), earning yet another berth at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at the Target Center in Minneapolis.  There, DU would face St. Cloud State in a back-and-forth semifinal. The Huskies jumped out to a 1-0 first period lead on a Joey Benik power-play goal.  DU would answer by tying it up 1-1 in the second period on a Troy Terry goal at 6:29.  The Huskies countered with David Morley’s power-play marker exactly five minutes later to send the Huskies up 2-1.  In the third period, SCSU went up 3-1 on Colorado native Mikey Eyssimont’s goal at 1:41. The Pioneers fought back and scored only 45 seconds later on an Evan Janssen goal to make it 3-2 SCSU, and while the Pioneers would fight hard for the tying goal in the final minutes, SCSU was able to ice the game 4-2 with an empty netter from Jimmy Schuldt. DU went on to tie North Dakota 1-1 in the meaningless consolation game which, despite the two teams playing, would not serve as a Frozen Four preview with the two teams resting their stars.

That year, DU earned a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament, and would face #3 seed Boston University in the opening round at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.  The Pioneers would shellack the Terriers, 7-2, with a very efficient seven goals on 25 shots on goal, led by DU’s ‘Pacific Rim Line” of Trevor Moore, Danton Heinen, and Dylan Gambrell, who all grew up on North America’s west coast. The Pioneers built a 5-0 lead on BU into the second period, chasing BU’s starting goalie Sean Maguire after the first four goals, with Connor LeCouvee coming in to mind the Terrier net, only to let in Denver’s final three markers. So balanced were the Pioneers in that game that all seven DU goals were scored by different players. Given Montgomery’s pattern of achieving one NCAA win more than the previous year (2014 loss in regional to BC, 2015 win in the regional (BC), followed by a loss to Providence, and the 2016 win in regional over BU), many DU fans figured DU was probably due for a regional championship in the next victory, which DU did, in fact, achieve.

Boston University had no answers for Denver’s Pacific Rim Line, led by Trevor Moore in the 2016 NCAA Regional in St. Paul, Minn. Photo: University of Denver

The Pioneers had expected to face NCHC competitor (and top-seeded) St. Cloud in the NCAA regional final which would have been a very tough assignment with the regional held in St. Paul, Minn., not far from the St. Cloud campus. But the Huskies had been upset by Ferris State, 5-4, in overtime the previous day.  So the Pioneers were now looking forward to getting some revenge on Ferris State for knocking DU out of the NCAA tournament in 2012 in Gwozdecky’s penultimate season.

Danton Heinen (#20 in white) scored a goal in DU’s 2016 NCAA regional victory over Ferris State in St. Paul, Minn. Photo: Denver Post 

The 2016 DU vs. Ferris State game, played before only 2,799 fans in St. Paul, would be another weird one for the Pioneers. DU came out firing on FSU goalie Darren Smith, piling up 15 first period shots to only three for the Bulldogs. But the score after the first period was deadlocked at 2-2, after the Bulldogs had remarkably scored on two of their three shots on DU goalie Tanner Jaillet. The Pioneers would gain the lead, going up 3-2 on a Trevor Moore tally in the second period, but the Bulldogs would re-tie the game at 3-3 at the 7:19 mark of the third period. Fortunately, the Pioneers would erupt for three consecutive goals in a two-minute span, all within the last five minutes of the game, to beat Ferris State 6-3, and stamp DU’s ticket to the Frozen Four in Tampa, Florida, its first since the 2005 national title run. DU’s Blake Hillman scored at 15:28 of the third, followed by Nolan Zajac’s tally 23 seconds later, and Quentin Shore completing the DU scoring burst at 17:23 of the third. Once again, all six DU goals scorers were different players, showing DU’s balance.

When DU got to Tampa for the 2016 Frozen Four, a familiar rival awaited them in the NCAA semifinal – North Dakota. After decades of controversy, votes and court fights, the team’s “Flighting Sioux” nickname had been retired by the school in 2015, and the team had become the “Fighting Hawks”. A good 5,000 of the 18,000 fans packed into Amalie Arena in Tampa were clad in North Dakota kelly green as college hockey’s best traveling fan base, and with the 3rd highest pairwise ranking in the country that year, UND was favored over DU, who was ranked #6th in the year’s final pre-NCAA pairwise.

The Pioneers and North Dakota faced off in the 2016 NCAA Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla.  Photo: NCAA

After a scoreless first period. the Fighting Hawks’ Drake Caggiula scored twice in a five-minute span of the second period to put UND in the driver’s seat, 2-0, with the latter goal a nasty snipe to the short side on Jaillet.  However, the Pioneers would own the early third period, as DU cut the UND lead to 2-1 on all-American Will Butcher’s goal on a nifty face-off off assist from Grant Arnold, followed soon by Matt VanVoorhis’s (who grew up in Grand Forks, ND) game-tying goal when his pass attempt into the crease bounced into the UND net, caroming off UND captain Gage Ausmus’s leg. The Pioneers continued to press into the final minutes for the go-ahead goal, but it was UND who broke through for the heartbreaking game-winner when Nick Schmaltz tapped in a rebound just after a face-off in the Pioneer zone for the 3-2 go-ahead goal with about a minute left in the contest. UND added an empty netter in the final seconds to make the final 4-2.

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Nick Schmaltz (#8 in white) scored this heart-breaking game-winning goal for North Dakota over the Pioneers with about a minute left in the 2016 NCAA semifinal in Tampa. Photo: NCAA

UND would then waltz to an easy 5-1 win over Quinnipiac for the NCAA title that Saturday night for NCAA title #8 to go ahead of DU on the all-time title list, while the Pioneers would go home as NCAA semifinalists, still stuck at seven NCAA crowns, at least for another year. Many UND fans were quick to tell Denver fans that they considered the UND close win over Denver in the semifinal to be the real NCAA Championship Game, given UND’s dominance over Quinnipiac. Highlights of the 2016 NCAA DU vs UND game are here, in case you care to relive the agony.

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Denver’s Nolan Zajac reacts to North Dakota’s NCAA Frozen Four win over the Pioneers in Tampa in 2016. Photo: NCAA

The 2016 NCAA Frozen Four loss to UND would haunt the Pioneers that summer. The DU team vowed internally to use that disappointment to get back to the Frozen Four the next year in Chicago and to win the 2017 NCAA title. Optimism for the Pioneers was high, with a veteran DU team led by senior captain and all-American Will Butcher, as well as a dazzlingly-skilled new freshman first-round NHL draft pick named Henrik Borgström, and senior Tanner Jaillet returning in goal. And when the 2016-2017 season opened with home losses to Ohio State (3-2) and Boston College (3-1), the Pioneers didn’t panic. They went out the next weekend, swept Boston University and then built that sweep into a 15-game unbeaten streak that lasted until mid-December. Then, in January, the Pioneers would win 13 more games a row which would make them the top team in the NCHC, winning the Penrose Cup for the regular season crown and including a sweep of CC in the first round of the NCHC playoffs. Denver came into St. Paul as the #1 team in the country in the stretch drive. Unfortunately, North Dakota edged the Pioneers in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff semis, 1-0, to break DU’s winning streak. But the Pioneers then dumped Western Michigan 3-1 in the NCHC consolation game the next day to get themselves ready for the NCAA Tournament.

As the #1 overall seed, the NCAA committee sent DU to the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati’s US Bank Arena. Some fans had feared DU would be sent to the closest (West) regional, in Fargo, N.D. where the lower-seeded #10 seed North Dakota Fighting Hawks would be hosting and playing in front of their rabid fans in their home state. But as NCAA Committee Chair Tom McGinnis told College Hockey News: “The first principle was seeding the tournament 1-16 [by pairwise ranking], seeing where teams needed to be. It wasn’t so much keeping Denver away from Fargo because good, bad or indifferent, it’s a neutral site. I understand there will be a fair amount of green [North Dakota] jerseys in the building, but that wasn’t a factor because it worked out [numerically]. Now, had the numbers been different and North Dakota been an #8 or #9 seed, maybe we’d go down that path, but we didn’t need to.”

The Pioneers as a #1 seed, were paired with the lowest-ranked team to make the NCAA tournament that year, #27-ranked Michigan Tech, who had won the WCHA auto-bid by winning the WCHA league tournament. The Pioneers were just far too fast for the Huskies out of the gate and recorded 17 first period shots on goal to MTU’s five shots on Jaillet. Denver’s team speed advantage resulted in MTU taking the first two penalties in the game trying to slow down DU, and the Pioneers produced a pair of power-play goals by Colin Staub to go up 2-0, followed by a pair of even-strength goals from Emil Romig and Will Butcher to make it 4-0 Pioneers at the end of the first. Denver then scored its fifth goal by Tyson McLellan at 6:26 of the second period, and the game was essentially over. MTU did score two goals in the second period, but it was too little, too late as Denver advanced, 5-2 to the regional final.

Liam Finlay (#13 reacts to one of Denver’s five goals in DU’s 5-1 NCAA regional win over Michigan Tech. Photo: NCAA

Denver would play Penn State for the first time in history in the NCAA regional final in Cincinnati before a small crowd of 3,364 fans, most of whom came to cheer Penn State from neighboring Pennsylvania. PSU was a high-scoring Big 10 team, but the Pioneers were confident that PSU would have a hard time containing Denver’s team speed – a level of offensive tempo that PSU had not seen that season, playing in the slower Big 10 conference.

DU would have little trouble shredding the PSU defense for six goals in that game, with three of them coming on a hat trick from Denver’s Troy Terry, a home-grown player from Denver who would later go on to play on the 2018 US Olympic Team and in the NHL with Anaheim. A pair of Denver goals would also come from DU’s clutch goalscoring leader, Jarid Lukosevicius, while freshman phenom Henrik Borgström, an NHL first-round draft pick from Helsinki, Finland, added three assists for the Pioneers. The decisive moment in the game came in the second period, when it was deadlocked at 2-2. Terry and Lukosevicius exploded, combining for three unanswered goals for the Pioneers over a 12-minute span to seal what would become the 6-3 victory, sending DU to the 2017 Frozen Four in Chicago.

The United Center in Chicago would host the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four with Denver, Notre Dame, Harvard and Minnesota-Duluth.  Photo: NCAA

The 2017 Chicago Frozen Four would be DU’s finest hour since 2005. DU would leverage its healthy alumni contingent in Chicago, plus other DU fans from around the country, who could easily take advantage of copious flights and low airfares to get to Chicago. High ticket demand would produce the biggest group of Denver hockey fans to ever see the Pioneers play outside of Colorado, with 1,500-2,000 Pioneer fans finding their way to the United Center, home of the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. To put its best foot forward, DU would also fly its pep band and cheerleaders to the game, something it had never done before (or since) for a Frozen Four outside Denver. DU also provided a limited number of tickets for its students who could find their own way to Chicago. In the meantime, select DU fans took it upon themselves to fund the transport of unofficial mascot Denver Boone to Chicago, as well as the 25-foot long “Mega-Boone” banner, and DU Whiteboard — a cadre of witty DU students who required seats on the glass to display portable and pithy whiteboard messages for the crowd and television audience.

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Denver’s best ever out-of-state fan turnout (estimated at 1,500-2,000 Pioneer fans) greeted the Pioneers in Chicago for the 2017 Frozen Four. Photo: NCAA

The DU team also had a lot of connections to the Chicago Blackhawks, whose United Center locker room would host the Pioneers as the top seed. DU Trustee John Miller, also a Board Member of the Blackhawks, had made sure the team was able to experience the arena earlier that season on a midwestern road trip “just in case they made it [to the Frozen Four]” Miller told the Chicago Tribune. And Blackhawks then-assistant Coach Kevin Dineen, a former DU captain in the early 1980s, left the 2017 DU team an encouraging note on the blackboard in the Blackhawks locker room before the Hawks left on road trip and DU moved into the room as the top seed. In addition, former DU hockey alumni who had played for the Blackhawks, such as Jim Wiste and Cliff Koroll who led DU to NCAA titles in the late 1960s, cited the spirit of ex-Blackhawk player, coach and late 1960s Pioneer captain Keith Magnuson (who died in 2003) as ever-present in DU’s 2017 triumph.

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The United Center in Chicago was buzzing from the energy of 19,000 fans before the Pioneers played Notre Dame in the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four Semifinal. Photo: NCAA

First, in the NCAA semifinals, the Pioneers would be paired with Frozen Four host Notre Dame, arguably America’s largest collegiate athletics brand name, whose campus is less than 90 minutes from Chicago. Some DU fans worried that Notre Dame’s close proximity to Chicago and national brand name would not only generate a hostile environment for DU in Chicago, but would nudge neutral Chicago fans to root against the Pioneers. Those fears proved to be unfounded, however, as DU own fans, band, mascot, cheerleaders, banner and Whiteboard proved at least equal to and, at times, more prominent than Notre Dame’s multi-thousand fan presence among the sellout crowd of more than 19,600 fans jamming the United Center.

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The Pioneers ran the Notre Dame Fighting Irish straight out the United Center with a 6-1 victory before 19,000 fans at the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four Semifinal in Chicago. Photo: NCAA

The Pioneers rolled to a 6-1 victory in the NCAA semifinal, as this NCAA highlight video serves to remind us. Denver scored five straight goals over the first two periods, led by Dylan Gambrell’s pair of goals to pace the Pioneers’ demolition of the Fighting Irish. Many of Notre Dame’s fair-weather fans left the building by the second period before the Irish finally got on the scoreboard in the third period – far too late to stop the Pioneers’ speeding train. DU outshot Notre Dame 42-17 in the contest, and the outcome seemed never in doubt, as the Pioneers kept attacking ND in waves.

“I don’t really know what to say,” said DU coach Jim Montgomery after the win. “I’m just amazed at the effort that our team produced in a big-time moment against a really, really good college hockey team.”

Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, who was one of Montgomery’s coaching mentors when Monty was a grad assistant at Notre Dame in 2005, put it more succinctly: “If the other team [Notre Dame] doesn’t get the puck, they’re not going to have many shots.”

One of DU’s star players was even more direct: “I wasn’t surprised at all,” said Pioneer forward Henrik Borgström after the game “I think we’re the best team in the country.”

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Henrik Borgström (#5 in white) scores for Denver against Notre Dame. He later said his Denver team was “the best team in the country” after the 6-1 win.  Photo: NCAA

The Pioneer fans were delighted not only with the hockey victory but also with the fact that it came against one of the best known athletic brand names in the country. It provided sorely needed exposure for our small private school, whose sports achievements are often buried in its own local media market behind the exploits of the eight professional teams in Denver and four larger public football schools within an hour’s drive of DU’s campus.

Next, DU would face Minnesota Duluth, a program DU knew intimately from splitting an NCHC league series with the Bulldogs in Denver that December. UMD shares similar colors with DU, and under coach Scott Sandelin, always plays a skill-based, puck possession system similar to the Pioneers. UMD had earned its way into the NCAA Championship Final with a dramatic 2-1 win over Harvard with the winning goal scored in the last 30 seconds of regulation time.

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Denver Captain Will Butcher (front) leads the Pioneers past the Denver cheer team and down the red carpet into the United Center for the 2017 NCAA Championship Game against Minnesota-Duluth.  Photo: NCAA

In the NCAA Championship Game, the Pioneers and Bulldogs initially locked into a scoreless first period before over 19,000 fans at the United Center. But then DU uncorked its not-so-secret weapon, sophomore forward Jarid Lukosevicius, who would later set a career record for game-winning goals in a DU uniform with 20 in his four-year DU career.  On this night in Chicago, his natural hat trick in the second period would provide the biggest game-winner of Luko’s career, as well as all the goals DU would need to beat UMD 3-2. It would be the Pioneers’ eighth national title, tied with North Dakota for second all-time behind Michigan’s nine crowns. Lukosevicius also became the first player with a hat trick in the NCAA title game since coach Jim Montgomery scored three goals in the third period for Maine in its 5-4 NCAA victory over Lake Superior (Mich.) State in 1993.

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Jared Lukosevicius (#14) had the greatest-ever Denver Pioneers individual performance in an NCAA Championship Game with a natural hat trick to lead Denver to a 3-2 win over Minnesota-Duluth in Chicago in 2017. Photo: NCAA

Lukosevicius broke the second-period scoreless tie by scoring twice in a 16-second span to grab the momentum for DU. For the first goal, about five minutes into the second period, Lukosevicius redirected a long Michael Davies blue line blast over the shoulder of Minnesota Duluth goalie Hunter Miska. That goal was followed 16 seconds later by Troy Terry turning, dancing and stick-handling through the UMD defense from down low in the corner to get the puck into the UMD crease where his roommate, Lukosevicius, buried the loose puck past Miska to send the Pioneers up, 2-0. The two Lukosevicius goals in 16 seconds set an NCAA record for the fastest two goals by the same scorer.

The Bulldogs then countered to make it 2-1 when Alex Iafallo, the UMD hero from scoring the winning goal with 26.6 seconds left against Harvard in the other NCAA semifinal, converted a perfect pass-and-crease-tip from Joey Anderson past DU’s Tanner Jaillet, who had won the Mike Richter award the day before as the nation’s top college netminder. The Iafallo goal came just two minutes after Lukosevicius’ second goal.

But the Pioneers answered UMD right back again when Lukosevicius tallied his third goal of the period to restore Denver’s two-goal advantage at 3-1, as he cleaned up a Troy Terry rebound from the bottom of the right face-off circle and rocketed a wrist shot past Miska for the eventual game-winner. As Lukosevicius celebrated his hat-trick with his teammates, baseball caps floated down from the stands onto the ice, with more caps following later once the goal scorer was announced.  And while that would be all of DU’s goals at the United Center, it would certainly not be all of the drama.

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Tariq Hammond, Denver’s solid defensive defenseman, is stretchered off the ice with a broken leg in the final period of the 2017 NCAA Championship Game in Chicago. Photo: NCAA

Early in the third period, Denver’s Tariq Hammond, a rock of a junior defensive defensemen, hit the end boards behind the Denver goal and his right leg twisted awkwardly after Minnesota-Duluth’s Jared Thomas tried to climb over him. Play continued for a bit before officials stopped the game with 16:50 remaining. Hammond was stretchered off the ice with his teammates looking on, and the three orthopedic surgeons on site knew the right ankle was broken, as did Hammond: “I hit the ice, and my ankle was looking a little weird, and I just knew it probably was over,” Hammond said after the game while wearing a protective boot in the Denver dressing room. “But I had faith in my team…I love this program.”

With Hammond gone from the game and Denver’s team in a state of shock over their fallen teammate, the ice suddenly tilted in favor of Duluth, who would put 17 shots on the Denver net in the final period, to Denver’s three shots at the other end. One of those Bulldog shots, by Riley Tufte, would find twine. UMD climbed back in the game at 3-2, and their fans were roaring with just five minutes remaining in the game. DU, whose entire season strategy was predicated on relentless offensive puck pressure (and running good teams out of the buildings with bunches of goals in the playoffs), was now reversing its strategy by bunkering in a defensive posture to protect the lead and, frankly, hanging on for dear life.

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Will Butcher, who won the 2018 Hobey Baker Award the day before DU won the NCAA title in Chicago. Photo: Hobey Baker Award Committee

“We knew [UMD] were going to come with a push,” said DU senior all-American defenseman Will Butcher to the New York Times. Butcher, DU’s captain, had won DU’s second Hobey Baker Award (given to the nation’s top collegiate hockey player) the day before. “It was the last game of the season. So everybody was going to come with a push in that kind of situation.”

The Pioneers held off the Bulldogs’ barrage the rest of the way, laying out and selflessly blocking shots on defense, and Jaillet made 16 third-period saves to preserve the DU victory. As the United Center scoreboard clock hit all zeroes at the end of the game, the Pioneers spilled out of their bench, throwing their gloves and sticks in the air and dog-piling in front of the corner of DU biggest fans, covered in glory and smiles. Tariq Hammond, his ankle shattered but feeling no pain, watched from the tunnel until his teammates brought him onto the ice on crutches to celebrate with the NCAA trophy. You can re-watch the entire game here.

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Tariq Hammond (center) returned to the ice on crutches, his leg broken, to celebrate with his Denver teammates after the game. Photo; NCAA

Later that night, the Denver band, cheerleaders and fans awaited the team at the Sheraton Grand Hotel and when the team entered through the glass front doors, the DU band struck up the Denver fight song at high volume and Monty danced a little jig for the crowd. Everyone partied until late into the night and the hotel was even forced to find more beer than it initially had in stock.

DU had won title #8, re-tied with North Dakota for second place all-time. Montgomery would earn the plaudits of nearly all Pioneer fans, and the fanbase’s pain at Gwozdecky’s 2013 firing had faded behind the bright glow of a brand new NCAA title.

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The Pioneers celebrate the 2017 NCAA title — the school’s eighth. Photos: NCAA

As the summer unfolded and the 2017-2018 season approached, optimism was high for another Frozen Four run, as three of the Pioneers’ key non-seniors  — Borgström, Gambrell, and Terry, who all had NHL contract offers to leave school early – decided to stay with the Pioneers for an additional year, a somewhat unusual, but happy situation. Montgomery, who won the 2017 Spencer Penrose award in April as National Coach of the Year, also generated some NHL interest for his coaching talents that summer, but he later publicly withdrew his potential candidacy with the Florida Panthers to stay coaching the Pioneers for the 2017-2018 season.

Denver opened the 2017-2018 season without a loss in the team’s first six games, including a home victory over Notre Dame and road victories at Boston College and Boston University. Later that fall, Denver also swept St. Cloud and Minnesota Duluth, but reached a low point with back-to-back home losses to unranked Dartmouth and Merrimack in late December. The Pioneers used the second half of the year to generate momentum with a 10-game unbeaten streak in January to mid-February.

A mid-season highlight was Troy Terry’s selection to the U.S. Olympic Team, which meant he missed about a month of the DU season to participate in the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Terry, who would be an all-American in 2018 at DU, registered five assists in the Olympics and was a crucial part of the US team. His role was to feed the team’s leading scorer, Ryan Donato of Harvard. The Terry-Donato collegiate duo paced Team USA, despite the US roster being otherwise full of older minor league and European-based players.

Troy Terry was one of only a handful of collegians on the 2018 US Olympic Team. Photo: USOC

St. Cloud State ran away with the regular-season league title that year to claim the Penrose Cup, and the Pioneers finished second in the NCHC. Second-seeded DU faced rival and #7 seeded CC in the NCHC first round league playoff series, almost always a difficult assignment regardless of finish position, given the long rivalry between the schools. The Pioneers lost the first game to the improved Tigers 2-0, but rebounded with two wins, 3-2 and 6-1 to win the series, and advance to St. Paul for the Frozen Faceoff. There, the Pioneers beat Minnesota Duluth 3-1 in the first semifinal. Facing league leader St. Cloud in the NCHC Championship just an hour from St. Cloud’s campus had the Pioneers as underdogs. However, the Pioneers scored the first three goals of the game in the first and second periods, and rolled to a 4-1 victory, as the first NCHC team to win a second NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship.

The Pioneers, ranked 5th in the national pairwise rankings, would be a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament, and were sent to the PPL Center in Allentown, Pa. for the “Midwest” regional, a geographic oddity considering Allentown is just a 90-minute drive from the Atlantic Ocean. There, DU would be paired for a rematch with #3 seed Penn State from the Big 10. The Pioneers had destroyed the Nittany Lions in Cincinnati in the 2017 NCAA tournament, scoring six goals on them in the regional final in a 6-3 win.  This time, the Nittany Lions had a full week to prepare for the Pioneers’ relentless team speed, as well as enjoying the support of most of the 7,400 Pennsylvania-based fans in Allentown, where Penn State enjoys a statewide following as the flagship public university in the state. Add in the revenge factor for PSU, and there were plenty of reasons to expect a battle this time. No matter though…

Jared Lukosevicius (#14 in white) screens out the Penn State goalie during one of the five goals DU scored in the 2018 Allentown Regional. Photo: NCAA

The Pioneers rolled to 17 first period shots, as Penn State, even with extra prep time and familiarity and the crowd advantages, could not contain Denver’s team speed. In fact, Denver’s margin of victory turned out to be one goal higher than the year before, as DU cruised to a 5-1 win. Kohen Olifshefski and Troy Terry found twine for DU in the first period, quieting the pro-Penn State crowd, and the Pioneers didn’t stop there, scoring twice more in the second period behind goals from Henrik Borgström and Jarid Lukosevicius. At 4-0, the Pioneers eased back a bit in the third period, and Penn State was able to score a single goal from the stick of Liam Folkes, to cut Denver’s lead to three goals, but the Pioneers answered on another Lukosevicius tally to make the final 5-1, Denver. You can watch the highlights here.

DU then advanced to the regional final, where it would face the fourth overall seed in Ohio State, just a notch above the #5th seeded Pioneers, but a program that hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1998. Ohio State had hired former longtime Pioneer assistant Steve Miller before that season from Providence College, where Miller was an assistant under head coach Nate Leaman. Miller had helped Providence to defeat Denver in the 2015 NCAA tournament, and in 2018, Miller’s presence on the OSU bench was a likely factor in OSU’s excellent preparations for the Pioneers. OSU used its size, good gap control and timely goalscoring from Kevin Miller (no relation), who scored twice for the Buckeyes and goalie Sean Romeo, who made 30 saves to end the Pioneers’ season.

The game, played before about 5,000 fans in Allentown, found the two teams skating to a scoreless first period, with Ohio State outshooting Denver, 8-6, through the first 20 minutes. Dakota Joshua broke through to give the Buckeyes a 1-0 lead at 3:47 of the second period, collecting a loose puck from Brandon Kearney’s shot and releasing a backhander with his back to the goal. Jaillet appeared unable to see the shot through a net-front screen, and the puck went in to give the Buckeyes the lead. Kevin Miller put the Buckeyes up 2-0 with his first goal at 15:31 of the second period. Ohio State made it 3-0 at 9:27 of the third period as Tanner Laczynski drove the net and slipped a pass across the crease for Matt Joyaux, who beat Jaillet for a back-breaking dagger goal that signaled OSU’s dominance that day.

Denver had no answers for Ohio State in the final of the 2018 Allentown Regional.                     Photo: GG sports

The Pioneers finally responded in the third period when Ian Mitchell fed Tyson McLellan with a pass through the crease for the Pioneers’ lone goal of the game at 11:21 of the third period, but Ohio State countered just 30 seconds later with a similar play for Miller’s second goal of the game. The Pioneers were desperate to extend their season and Montgomery pulled Jaillet early, at the 14:16 of the final period for the extra attacker. But OSU’s Mason Jobst iced the game with an empty-netter to make the final 5-1, a surprising and underpowered end to the Pioneers’ season.

“I thought we came out and were ready,” said Montgomery after the game. “Our effort was really good tonight. We just have to tip our hat to Ohio State. They were better than us in every facet. They deserve to move on.”

With DU suddenly bounced out of the NCAA tournament, the anticipated exodus of DU’s drafted underclassmen began immediately. Terry, Gambrell, and Borgström all signed with their respective NHL teams the day after the loss. Blake Hillman signed one day later, and undrafted senior-captain-to-be Logan O’Connor surprisingly signed later in the summer after impressing at the Colorado Avalanche Development Camp, for a total of five underclassmen lost, plus the usual senior graduations. Moreover, at least three NHL teams – the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings and Dallas Stars – all expressed interest in Jim Montgomery, and Monty ultimately signed a multi-million dollar head coaching deal on May 4th of 2018 with the Dallas Stars.

Montgomery led the Stars to the second round of the NHL playoffs in his first season, and Dallas was in the sixth NHL playoff spot in his second season when he was abruptly fired on December 10, 2019 for what Dallas Stars officials called a “material act of unprofessionalism”.  Team officials would not further specify the nature of the incident, but ruled out hockey performance, criminal activity or a situation involving any players or employees as causes for the firing. At the time of his firing from the Stars, Montgomery had a 60-43-10 overall record (.575).

Montgomery was named head coach of the Dallas Stars on May 4, 2018 and was suddenly fired on December 10, 2019. Photo: Dallas Stars

In 2018, the Denver administration was well prepared for Monty’s departure from Denver to Dallas, having been through his NHL courtship dance by the Florida Panthers the summer before. On his way out of Denver, Montgomery went out of his way to endorse his assistant, David Carle, for the next DU head coach. At the same time, DU did its due diligence in speaking with other college head coaches about the position, reportedly including Nate Leaman, who directed the Providence Friars to the 2015 National championship (and defeated DU in that regional final in the process), UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin and then-Iowa Wild (AHL) coach Derek Lalonde, a former DU assistant. In the end, DU decided to hire Carle, to the cheers of most of the Denver fan base.  While there were some serious concerns about Carle’s lack of head coaching experience and a few concerns about Carle’s young age (28 at the time, and still the youngest head coach in Division I), there was a great deal of excitement around hiring the young alumnus as a coach.

At age 28, David Carle (center) was the youngest Division I hockey coach in America when he was introduced as Denver’s new coach in 2018. Karlton Creech (left) and Ron Grahame (right) were the Denver athletic directors who hired Carle. Photo: University of Denver

Carle, an Anchorage, Alaska native who was once a likely second-round NHL draft pick and Pioneer recruit in 2008, had his college hockey career terminated before it began when a serious heart condition was diagnosed the summer before Carle was to join the DU team. Carle’s brother Matt was a DU Hobey Baker winner and all-American in the mid-2000s, so there was a lot of goodwill helping to pave the way for David at Denver. DU then-coach George Gwozdecky honored David’s undergraduate scholarship from 2008-2012, and David became a student coach for the Pioneers, eventually earning a full-time assistant status after he graduated from DU, followed by a short stint in the USHL as an assistant coach before Montgomery hired him as a full-time assistant in 2014. Carle had also turned down a head coaching offer from Alaska-Anchorage earlier that year, presumably due to the uncertain future of that hockey program, given the recent financial struggles of the State of Alaska, thus putting pressure on its two state universities to cut costs.

Carle, with four full years working at DU under Monty since 2014, was quick to assure DU fans that there would be continuity between Monty’s “Proscess” (sic) and Carle’s own coaching philosophy. With a National Title in 2017, and Denver now firmly back among the top five programs nationally, such continuity was seen as vitally important among fans and the chief reason why other coaching candidates were seen as less desirable than Carle. Monty’s “grooming” of Carle over the four years they worked together would pay instant dividends, as Carle would take a vastly-depleted DU team all the way to the 2019 Frozen Four in his very first season as a head coach.

With five early NHL departures (the most in Pioneer history) and the graduation of all-American goalie senior Tanner Jaillet, Carle would need his freshmen recruits to play like veterans right out of the chute. In addition, Denver needed unexpected help in goal after slated freshman goalie Fillip Larsson, a Swedish draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings, suffered an injury playing junior hockey, and would not be able to play for the first few months of the 2018-2019 season. DU was forced to call on little-used, former walk-on sophomore goalie Devin Cooley to fill the goaltending void while Larsson healed. Fortunately for the Pioneers, both the new freshman players and Cooley stepped up. At the same time, the team turned inward in an effort to “prove them wrong”, after the pre-season pollsters lowered collective expectations for Denver, predicting a fifth place league finish.

The start of the 2018-2019 season was exciting for Denver – a six-game undefeated streak over Air Force, Alabama-Huntsville, Alaska-Fairbanks, and Western Michigan, the latter to open NCHC play. Another eight-game undefeated streak spread into January, establishing the Pioneers as an upper echelon (6th ranked) team, rather than a rebuilding one.

By mid-January, Devin Cooley, the former walk-on sophomore goalie, was rocking a .934 saves percentage, good for 3rd in the NCAA. Cooley also had a 1.89 GAA, 7th in the NCAA with four shutouts, tied for 6th in the NCAA. Denver’s freshman class was then fourth in NCAA scoring with 91 points, accounting for 37% of the team’s total points and 34% of the team’s total goals. Norwegian freshman Emilio Pettersen was tied for 7th among NCAA freshman with 25 points, California freshman Cole Guttman was tied for 6th among NCAA freshmen with 11 goals while fellow California defenseman Slava Demin was 5th among NCAA freshmen with a +18 plus/minus rating.

As the season headed into the stretch drive, the Pioneers had some stumbles, unexpectedly losing the Gold Pan to Colorado College. Still, the Pioneers ended up a respectable fourth place in the NCHC, securing home ice for the NCHC playoffs, where they swept rival North Dakota in a rare first round NCHC matchup, since most of the time in recent years, these two schools both finish in the top four. DU beat the Fighting Hawks by 2-0 and 4-2 scores, advancing to St. Paul, Minn. for the NCHC Frozen Face-off. As the fourth NCHC seed, the Pioneers faced nationally second ranked Minnesota-Duluth, and the Bulldogs unsurprisingly shut out the Pioneers in the NCHC semi-final, 3-0. DU did get a measure of satisfaction by administering a 6-1 beat down of Colorado College in the NCHC consolation game, no doubt motivated by the DU loss of the Gold Pan to the Tigers earlier in the season.

DU was ranked #8 in the national pairwise on NCAA selection day, which secured the Pioneers a two-seed in the NCAA tournament, which sent them to the West Regional in Fargo, N.D. Normally, Fargo is a difficult assignment, as in past years, it was something of a fortress home-ice advantage in the University of North Dakota’s home state. But since UND was knocked out of the NCHC playoffs by Denver, the Fighting Hawks did not have a high-enough pairwise ranking to qualify for the NCAAs. Instead, St. Cloud State was the top seed in Fargo, paired with Atlantic Hockey’s representative American International College (AIC). DU was paired with Big 10 Champion and #3 seed Ohio State in a delicious rematch of the prior season, where the Buckeyes whipped the Pioneers, 5-1, to end DU’s season in Allentown, Pa.

OSU came out firing at Denver in Scheels Arena in Fargo, outshooting Denver 12-5 in the first period. Although the score remained 0-0, Pioneer fans perhaps feared a repeat of the prior season’s OSU rout of DU in the NCAAs. But between periods, DU strategized adjustments to the Buckeye attack and the second period turned out to be much more even and defensive, with each team getting only seven shots on each other’s goal. Fortunately for Pioneer fans, DU was able to find a rare sliver of open space, when grad transfer defenseman Lester Lancaster scored the biggest goal of his life.

Les Lancaster’s goal was the game-winner in DU’s 2-1 2019 NCAA Fargo Regional win over Ohio State, exacting revenge for OSU’s NCAA win over Denver the year before in Allentown, Pa. Photo: NCAA

Lancaster took a pass from Emilio Pettersen and roared in alone on OSU goalie Tommy Napier, burying his shot for what would be the eventual game-winning goal with 40 seconds left in the second period. With DU buckling down on defense, defending its lead in the third period, OSU would manage 13 more shots in the final period, with all of them saved by Fillip Larsson. DU would manage only a single third-period shot saved by Napier, as well as another shot by DU’s Colin Staub on the OSU empty net in the final minute that went in the net to give DU the 2-0 victory. You can watch highlights here. The revenge win over OSU was sweet for the Pioneers, but an even more sweet gift for Denver would be the shocking loss by heavily-favored St. Cloud State to AIC, 2-1, providing Denver with a substantially (#31st) lower-ranked opponent for the regional final.

Colin Staub (#24) and Kohen Olishefski (#12) celebrate a Denver goal against American International College in DU’s 2019 NCAA Fargo Regional 3-0 shutout win.                                  Photo: Grand Forks Herald

The next day, Denver faced the AIC Yellowjackets, fresh off their upset of St. Cloud State.  DU played its usual relentless style to begin the game and outshot AIC 10-4 in the first period, and it seemed to be only a matter of time before the Pioneers would break through. Denver would finally score late in the second period when Ryan Barrow fed Colin Staub from the corner to the crease, and Staub fired the puck past AIC goalie Zackarias Skog to send the Pioneers up 1-0. With the Pioneers now ahead in the game and DU goalie Filip Larsson having achieved five consecutive periods of shutout NCAA tournament hockey over the two days in Fargo, DU adopted a more defensive posture to protect the lead in the third period. AIC, with its season on the line, would outshoot DU in desperation in that third period, 10-2. But the Pioneers were efficient— both of those Pioneer shots went in the AIC net as insurance goals for Denver. Liam Finlay beat Skog at 16:30 of the third to make the score 2-0, and Jarid Lukosevicius would add an empty netter in the final 90 seconds for the Pioneers to make the final 3-0. You can watch some of the highlights and coach Carle’s reaction here.

While Pioneer fans cheered the victory over AIC, in the Denver locker room, there was deep concern about Emilio Peterson, one of Denver’s key offensive players, who had suffered an upper-body injury in the AIC game that forced him into an arm sling for the rest of the season. The Pioneers, picked for a rebuilding season, would “prove them wrong” and advance to Buffalo, N.Y. for the program’s third Frozen Four in four seasons.

Emilio Pettersen (in sling, center) who hurt his upper body vs AIC, went to Buffalo with the DU team as seen here, but would not be able to play in the Frozen Four. Photo: Puck Swami

The Pioneers chartered a jet to rainy and gray Buffalo, N.Y and prepared to play the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Minutemen, the #2 overall seed in the semifinal. DU was riding high, especially defensively, as the Pioneers had played the three NCAA regional games without giving up a single goal under the goaltending excellence of Filip Larsson. The Minutemen were led by Cale Makar, a generational talent and by far the best player in the history of the entire UMass-Amherst program at the collegiate level, who would win the 2019 Hobey Baker Award and was already a first-round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche, the team he would play for just hours after his season ended with UMass-Amherst.

The KeyBank Center lobby in Buffalo just prior to the 2019 Frozen Four. Photo: Puck Swami

The game would be played at the KeyBank Center, a serviceable but lower-end NHL arena in the city of Buffalo that was a far cry from the glamor of Chicago in 2017. Only 13,051 fans would show up for the semifinals, the lowest Frozen Four crowd since 1996 in Cincinnati, and by far the smallest crowd since the Frozen Four was awarded primarily to NHL arenas starting in 2002. DU had perhaps 500 fans in Buffalo, cheering against 4,000 or more UMass-Amherst fans, who had an easier six-hour drive from Amherst or Boston straight down I-90 to Buffalo.

The Denver/UMass-Amherst game would be an epic one, although a game that the Pioneers would lose, 4-3 in overtime. UMass-Amherst would find itself in trouble early as the Minutemen’s Niko Hillenbrand was given a 5-minute major and a game misconduct for contact to the head at the 6:29 mark. Contact to the head would be a recurring problem for both teams that night and would be a huge factor in determining the game. Hillenbrand’s penalty would give DU a golden opportunity, and the Pioneers jumped out to early 1-0 lead on the power play, when Colin Staub, a senior captain would score the final goal of his Pioneer career as part of a net-front scrum at the 8:29 mark.

But the DU lead wouldn’t last long, as DU got into trouble of their own when Jarid Lukosevicius took a tripping penalty at 10:47, followed by a Tyson McLellan holding penalty at 11:16.  Giving UMass-Amherst, one of the top power plays in the nation, a two-man advantage was not smart hockey. UMass-Amherst scored on that 5-on-3 as Bobby Trevigno tipped Jacob Pritchard’s shot to tie the game at 1-1 at the 11:41 mark of the first. To make matters worse, Denver’s Ryan Barrow was then booted from the game and given a 5-minute major for taking his own contact to the head major penalty less than a minute later at 12:32, and with McLellan still in the penalty box for his minor at 11:16, Denver would have to fight off another 5-on-3 power play.

UMass-Amherst wasted little time in scoring another power-play goal, as Mitchell Chaffee found the twine behind Larsson on a fairly open net to send the Minutemen up 2-1 at 13:04, which released McLellan from the penalty box. Barrow’s major penalty still had time remaining on it though, and UMass-Amherst would score again on a 5-on-4 power-play goal just seconds later, as John Leonard wristed a 20-footer high over a shell-shocked Larsson and the bewildered Pioneer penalty kill.

To sum it up, in less than two total minutes, UMass-Amherst had poured in three power-play goals to turn a one-goal advantage for the Pioneer into a two-goal lead for UMass-Amherst. For Larsson, the previous weekend’s NCAA regional performance of six periods of shutout hockey had suddenly turned into a nightmare. The period ended at 3-1 in favor of UMass-Amherst, and the Pioneers retreated to the locker room to lick their wounds and strategize about how to get back into the game.

The second period produced no scoring, as both teams had adjusted to each other by then. But UMass-Amherst took another major contact to the head penalty when Chaffee hit DU’s standout defenseman Ian Mitchell’s head at 16:12 of the second period.

Ian Mitchell was hit in the head by UMass-Amherst’s Mitchell Chafee, one of two ejection penalties for UMass-Amherst. Photo: NCAA

With two Minutemen now ejected from the game, UMass-Amherst had begun to tire. But the Pioneers could not convert during the five-minute major power-play, which carried over into the third period. UMass-Amherst would also take two more minors in the first half of the third period, but DU could not convert on those, either. The Pioneers were still relentless though, and in particular, Cole Guttman, a freshman forward, put the Pioneers on his proverbial back. Guttman first scored on a 20-foot floating wrister at the 10:32 of the third mark to cut the UMass-Amherst lead to 3-2. Six minutes later with UMass-Amherst gasping, DU kept the puck in the UMass-Amherst zone when Guttman would score again at the 16:14 mark, on a crease pass from Tyson McLellan, who was camped behind the UMass-Amherst net. The game was now tied at 3-3, the momentum was all Denver, and the 500 Pioneer fans in Buffalo, led by Denver Boone, were shaking the “Megaboone” banner with the hope that the Pioneers could find just one more goal.

Unfortunately, the most controversial play in the entire 2019 NCAA tournament happened with about three minutes left in regulation. UMass-Amherst forward Bobby Trevigno drilled Denver’s Jake Durflinger near the boards with a very blatant elbow to the head. The hit was so egregious that ESPN analyst Colby Cohen called it “the worst one of the night” in a game that had already seen three contact-to-the-head ejections, two of them from UMass-Amherst. But all of the WCHA on-ice officials seemed to miss the play entirely even though every single camera in the arena seemed to catch it.  DU coach David Carle then asked the officials to “take a look at it” during the next stoppage, a UMass-Amherst timeout. The officials then asked Carle if he wanted to use up his one officials’ challenge to review it on video, but Carle said that he “chose not to.” A successful DU challenge would likely have given DU another five-minute power play and would have enabled DU to skate at a gassed UMass-Amherst team with all the momentum after tying the game at 3-3. On the other hand, Denver had not scored on nine previous minutes of DU power-play time, Carle didn’t have the advantage of instant replay on the bench to know for sure if he’d be right, and he was likely fearing the loss of his timeout should he lose the challenge – all very good reasons not to challenge the play at the time.

This was the game’s most controversial play, an egregious elbow by UMass-Amherst’s Bobby Trevigno to the head to Denver’s Jake Durflinger that was a  non-call in the game, After the game, the NCAA reviewed the play and suspended Trevigno for his team’s next game, the NCAA title game, but the missed penalty was too late for Denver. Photo: NCAA

As it turned out, no penalty was called, but the NCAA did review the play after the game and took the unusual course of action to suspend Trevigno for the NCAA title game for the hit. It would be a bitter blow for UMass-Amherst and for Trevigno, but too late for the Pioneers. The DU vs. UMass-Amherst game then went to overtime, and while both teams had chances to win it, is was UMass-Amherst who cashed in on a blistering slap shot from Marc Del Gaizo that beat Larsson high at 15:18 of the first overtime to advance the Minutemen to the NCAA final. If you can handle it, the entire game video is here.

DU’s season had ended bitterly, but what a season it was. Denver had validated the decision to hire David Carle. More importantly, Carle’s work to develop the young team (19 freshmen and sophomores) to a Frozen Four appearance, despite losing five players early to NHL contracts (plus graduations) was surely one of the greatest coaching jobs in Pioneer history.

As this four-part series comes to a close, it’s important to think about where the program began, and where it is now. Coming off three Frozen Four appearances in the last four years, Denver is firmly among the top schools that have ever played the sport at the college level. It’s astonishing that a small university of 5,000 undergraduates (and less than that for a large chunk of the last 70 years) in a place where only a small percentage of the population has ever put on ice skates, has been able to achieve such excellence — up against many much larger, richer and state flagship schools from colder places. It’s a testament to every player who has ever worn the Crimson and Gold, to every coach, support staffer, family member or administrator who helped make those performances possible, as well as to all the donors and fans who support this great program.

Here’s to another 70 years! Go Pioneers!

Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of a long-time Pioneer fan and alumnus.

5 thoughts on “70 Years of DU Hockey History Part IV: The Current Era – 2013-2019”

  1. This series has been a good reminder about slumps. Even Denver’s best teams experienced some brutal slumps. The key is getting better as the season goes along and peak at tournament time.

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