LOVELAND, Colo. — Book those flights to Boston, Denver Hockey fans. The Pioneers are heading back to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2019.
As soon as Minnesota Duluth won the Frozen Faceoff in St. Paul last weekend, it felt like the Pioneers and Bulldogs were on a collision course to meet again in the NCAA Tournament. Whether it was going to be in the Regional Final or Frozen Four, the star-crossed rivals’ paths were always going to cross again. Fortunately for the sellout crowd at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, it took place in the Regional Final and they put on quite the show.
If UMD’s 2-0 Frozen Faceoff Semifinal victory over DU was the Bulldogs’ artistic masterpiece, the Loveland Regional Final was Denver’s. DU grad transfer forward Cameron Wright’s comments after the Pios’ victory over UMass-Lowell in the Regional Semifinal on Thursday night, which seemed a bit out-of-place and overly confident at the time, proved prophetic:
“We owe them. We’re going to come out fast and we’re going to get traffic in front of the goalie and we’re going to bat a couple in. We’re going to find a way to score on this guy and beat them.”
From the jump, the Pioneers channeled Wright’s Thursday night comments and punched the Bulldogs in the mouth. They dominated play, outshooting them 10-2 in the opening period. However, as was the case Thursday against UML, the Pioneers gave up the opening goal rather than scoring it. Darian Gotz scored his second goal of the season, both coming against the Pioneers, with just over five minutes remaining in the frame. With UMD goaltender Ryan Fanti in the midst of a three-plus game shutout streak, it certainly felt like that might have been the game-winning goal.
But the Pioneers didn’t go away. They didn’t stop relentlessly forechecking. And as Bobby Brink forced a Bulldog turnover to Fanti’s right, Cole Guttman skated into the slot where Brink found him with a pass and DU’s captain wired a wrister past Fanti, who could barely react. Tie game. Shutout streak over.
“Going into the game, we definitely wanted to get shots on [Fanti] early,” Guttman said. “I thought we had a really good [first] period all the way up until that but pucks just weren’t going in. I just wanted to throw it on net and it was nice to see it go through.”
The Pioneers were the better team for the full 60 minutes of the game and the hockey gods finally rewarded the Pioneers for their efforts with Guttman’s goal.
The turning point, however, came mid-way through the second period, with the game still tied at 1, the Pioneers took two consecutive penalties, the first of which, an Antti Tuomisto trip, was questionable while the second, a tripping call to Guttman, was obvious. The Bulldogs had 48 seconds of five-on-three hockey before 1:12 of additional power-play time. It was a fantastic opportunity for UMD to re-take the lead and potentially put the game away with how well Fanti had been playing, even despite Guttman’s goal.
Instead, the Pioneers penalty-killing unit, ranking among the bottom third in the country for most of the season, dug deep and killed off the penalties in dominant style. Goaltender Magnus Chrona made a few huge saves but it was DU’s skaters who took a page out of UMD’s book and kept the Bulldogs from gaining any foothold in the slot in front of Chrona.
“I liked our puck pressure,” DU head coach David Carle said of the penalty kill. “Over the last little bit here, we’ve solidified our PK forward pairs. There’s some consistency there which I think has helped the players a lot in reading off of one another and our puck pressure was excellent. You need some really big moments, especially on a five-on-three to get through them and the Webster block was unbelievable. Loved the kill all weekend long, it was real good for us and obviously the big man sitting here, [Chrona] was a big part of it too.”
But even with all the momentum gained from the penalty kill, the game was still tied and Fanti was still at his three-straight-shutouts best. Much to DU’s chagrin, Guttman’s goal didn’t faze him in the slightest. Throughout the remainder of the second period, he stopped even the most dangerous of DU chances, including multiple wide open, back door looks for DU’s top line and a golden breakaway look for Jack Devine. It took a weird bounce off of the boards behind UMD’s net and then off of Fanti to Savoie’s stick in the third period, a period once again dominated by the Pioneers, to finally break through again and beat Fanti for the second time and send the sold-out Budweiser Events Center crowd into a frenzy.
“I mean, lucky bounce, it obviously hit [Fanti] in the back, just right place, right time,” Savoie said. “It was a goal of ours to have a good net front tonight. I think we did a really good job throughout the game. [Fanti] made some really good saves and then obviously, we got that really fortunate bounce lat in the third there. I saw it bounce off the glass, hit him the back of the leg, and it was just sitting there and got a little touch on it.”
The Pios were the better team at five-on-five, their strength all year long, and they rode that to victory on Saturday afternoon in what might have been the best-ever atmosphere for a DU game.
“It’s very fitting,” Carle said of winning the Regional Final in Loveland. “The guys spoke to the crowd, it was exceptional. We’ve played in a lot of empty buildings in our time in NCAA regionals, being that we have to travel so much so to be the host, I commend the staff here, our administration for being committed to having NCAA ice hockey in the state of Colorado. It’s a great hockey community, it’s a great hockey state. We’re proud to wear Denver on our jersey and represent it.”
For the Pioneers, though, while it may not have been a full-on exorcism of demons that had plagued them against UMD – after all, they did beat them twice this season in dominant fashion – but it certainly had the feel of cathartic revenge. They played with a sense of motivation that wasn’t present in St. Paul last weekend and it led them back to the Frozen Four, which will be their second one in Boston. Of course, that city means a whole heck of a lot to Denver Hockey.
“There’s a lot of history in our program and we obviously talk about it a lot,” Carle said. “That  team, obviously a tragic incident with [Keith Magnuson] passing during that season and the guys were honoring him that year. It was an odd year. I don’t think the team had a home conference win until February. It was not an easy season and it was a team that came together at the end of the year…I remember being a little pissed because I wasn’t allowed to go to Boston and watch my brother play so I didn’t get to go in ’04 so it’s all the better to be going now in 2022.”
It’s hard not to think of the symmetry between the 2004 and 2022 teams. 2004, of course, was the last time the Pioneers played an NCAA Tournament game in the state of Colorado. Yes, the 2022 team was much more dominant in the regular season and hosted the regional as the #1 seed rather than the #2 seed that they were in 2004, but winning two dramatic, hard-fought, low-scoring games against teams that wanted to push DU around on their way to their first national championship in 35 years, at the then-called Fleet Center (now TD Garden) in Boston, it’s rather easy to start daydreaming about what may happen in just under two weeks.
The Pioneers now await their opponent – they play the winner of tomorrow’s Allentown Regional Final between Michigan and Quinnipiac – for the National Semifinal on April 7th. It was an absolutely electric weekend of hockey in Loveland and it was a great national showcase of what hockey in Colorado is and can be. Now, the Pios get to take that energy and momentum provided by the better than 8,000 fans that entered the Budweiser Events Center to Boston.
UMD scores first, Chrona will want that one back pic.twitter.com/hagjny25gr
— CJ Fogler AKA Perc70 #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) March 26, 2022
Strong forechecks = great goals. pic.twitter.com/bR90yUjJ5n
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) March 26, 2022
Goal No 22 for Carter Savoie & the Pios are up. pic.twitter.com/6X1iP11Ioe
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) March 26, 2022
Top photo: Justin Tafoya/Clarkson Creative via NCAA Photos