Remember Denver hockey’s performance at the Allentown NCAA Hockey Regional in 2018?
Denver’s 2017-2018 team was head coach Jim Montgomery’s defending National Champion Pioneer squad, loaded with NHL-bound talent and NCAA Tournament experience. And by the end of that season, DU was rolling along on all cylinders, on a playoff hot streak, wiping out #8 Minnesota-Duluth 3-1, and then #1 SCSU, 4-1, to win the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, and then steamrolling #12 Penn State, 5-1 before thousands of the Nittany Lions’ home state fans in Pennsylvania in the first round of the Allentown (Pa.) Regional. The Pios were uber-talented, relentless and looked unbeatable. Everything looked great for the Pios to win one just more game for a berth in the 2018 Frozen Four.
But the underdog Ohio State team was waiting to ambush DU in the Allentown regional final. Ohio State paid little attention to DU’s highly-favored talent disparity. The Buckeyes stepped up and blasted the Pioneers straight out of the building, 5-1, coldly ending DU’s dream of repeating as NCAA Champs, leaving the Pios and their fans in surprise and shock…
Generational DU talents and defending 2017 NCAA Champion teammates such as NHL first-round draft-pick Henrik Borgström, current NHL all-star Troy Terry and NHL second-round pick Dylan Gambrell had all turned down NHL offers to come back to DU to play one more season for the 2018 NCAA title repeat. Yet, within hours after DU had left Allentown with their heads hung low, all three of those players signed lucrative contracts with their respective NHL rights-holding teams — their Denver careers over. And coach Jim Montgomery soon left Denver, too, as head coach of the NHL’s Dallas Stars, never to return. Denver fans were left to wonder — how could such a talented DU team collapse so badly at such a big moment?
In retrospect, it was somewhat predictable. One theory was that the DU team was set for a letdown following their 2017 NCAA Championship season. Another theory was the many distractions faced by NHL-bound players as they had to balance their college careers with their impending professional careers. And a third theory was that DU was looking past OSU to repeating at the Frozen Four, and deserved to get belted. All three theories may have some merit…
And now, as our eyes turn to Boston this weekend for the 2022 NCAA Frozen Four, are the uber-talented (and favored) top-ranked Michigan Wolverines ready to hit the proverbial wall against the ‘underdog’ Denver Pioneers?
The parallels are eerie. Michigan, like Denver in 2018, is rolling along in the playoffs, winning its last six games in a row, with four of them ranked opponents in the Big 10 playoffs and the 2022 Allentown Regional, by a total score of 30-12, looking unstoppable.
DU, on the other hand, lost to UMD in the Frozen Faceoff by a goal, and has since edged Lowell and UMD by a just single goal each in the Loveland Regional games — hardly rolling along like Michigan is right now.
Michigan also ices a hockey team that is an all-star team of highly drafted NHL talent. In fact, this Michigan team might be THE MOST TALENTED NCAA TEAM OF ALL-TIME, if you judge your talent by NHL draft picks. Michigan sports SEVEN first-round NHL picks– more first-rounders than any college program has ever rostered on a single team in the history of college hockey! Moreover, four of those seven Michigan first-rounders were taken in the FIRST FIVE SELECTIONS of last summer’s NHL draft, something that has never happened before – this is the crème de la crème of NHL-bound talent, and they are all wearing Maize and Blue.
Owen Power, Matty Beniers, and Kent Johnson are returning NHL sophomore draftees this season on Michigan’s team. Power was the No. 1 overall selection in July’s 2021 NHL Draft, while Beniers was selected No. 2 and Johnson No. 4. As if that is not enough high-end talent, the trio will be joined by four other first-round selections on the Wolverines roster, including freshmen defensemen Luke Hughes (No. 5 in 2021), Mackie Samoskevich (No. 24 in 2021), junior Johnny Beecher (No. 30, in 2019), and sophomore Brendan Brisson (No. 29 in 2020) along with five other non-first round NHL draft picks. Amazing.
By comparison, DU has just four first-round draft selections in its entire 71- year school hockey program history, with the first one in 1984 (Craig Redmond), and others more recently in Joe Colborne, Beau Bennett and Henrik Borgström. DU has never had a top-5 selection, and there are no first-rounders on the current DU squad. That said, DU does have 12 NHL draft picks on its current team, including some second-round picks, but none of them are as highly-regarded as NHL prospects as Michigan’s first-rounders are.
Many of these same highly-drafted Wolverines will be boarding planes for their NHL clubs as soon as the Frozen Four ends. There are relocation distractions, interruptions to normal routines, academics, and family to manage, coordination with their new clubs and preparation for the Frozen Four – all at the same time. These same players are all set for a nice payday, too – as long as they stay healthy and injury-free. So, with several weeks to think about their futures, could these players be distracted enough to duplicate 2018 Denver’s meltdown in Allentown?
It is very possible, if not predictable. However, one thing is clear about the Thursday match-up: Denver, while a younger team overall than Michigan, must also use its Frozen Four experience edge. None of Michigan’s players, no matter how talented, have ever played in a Frozen Four before, while DU has five players on the current team who played in DU’s last Frozen Four in Buffalo in 2019. Michigan hasn’t won a Frozen Four since 1998, before all but a few of its current players were even born. DU has three national titles since 2004, and eight overall, second only to Michigan’s nine.
To beat favored Michigan, DU has to play as the best ‘team‘ on the ice. Even playing with the same intensity as Michigan will probably not be enough to win against Michigan’s greatest assembly of NHL prospects in history. Denver must be that much sharper and more focused to exit Boston’s TD Garden with a W.
All in all, don’t be surprised with a final score of 5-1 – but it could go either way Thursday afternoon.
Let’s just hope the 2022 Pios have a little 2018 OSU Buckeye in them, especially since we know how much Michigan just loves Ohio State…
Puck Swami is the internet moniker of a long-time Denver fan and alumnus. He shares his views here periodically at LetsGoDU.
Top photo credit: TheHockeyWriters