BOSTON, Mass. – The Denver Pioneers traveled more than 1,700 miles yesterday from DIA to Boston but they’re feeling right at home. Maybe it’s the Pioneers’ history of playing in all but one Frozen Four played in Massachusetts or maybe it’s the leadership group’s perspective of keeping everything in perspective and level-headed entering tomorrow’s national semifinal matchup with top overall seed Michigan. Whatever it is, the Pioneers know what is at stake this weekend, even if they’re trying to have some fun with it.
Three years ago, in Buffalo, the Pioneers returned to the Frozen Four for the first time since winning their eighth national title in Chicago two years prior. The feeling among that young team, the fourth youngest in the country and youngest among the Frozen Four field, was one of excitement if not expectation. Though they gave UMass-Amherst quite the battle in the semifinal, David Carle’s first Frozen Four trip as head coach ended in overtime of that semifinal game.
Now, fast-forward three years back to now, April 2022 in Boston, where the Pioneers have won two national titles (1960 & 2004), it all feels completely different, but in so many ways exactly the same. You see, three years ago, the Pioneers didn’t exactly expect to win the national title. This year, from the get-go, even after last year’s Covid-19-riddled disaster of a season, Denver has not shied away from the ultimate goal. The Pioneers aren’t just here to smile and wave.
“It’s always fun coming to the Frozen Four, being in this atmosphere, making it this far,” DU captain Cole Guttman said. “I’d say our team as a group, I think we have a lot of depth this year. I think leading up we’ve proved ourselves to be a top team in the country. I’m really excited to see how we respond. We’re ready to go. I think our preparation has been really good. A couple years ago I think our emotions were a little high. We were all excited to be there, we had a really young team. This year we have a goal of staying even-keeled, treating it like any other weekend. We got to prepare the same way and we’ve just got to execute.”
They won’t say it in so many words themselves but the Pioneers are here to win it all for the ninth time and stake their claim as the most accomplished college hockey program of all time.
And it’s appropriate, if not poetic that the host of this year’s event, Boston – the site of those two DU titles – will set the stage for the Pios’ quest. The Pios’ history is so intertwined with Boston that in some ways, you may as well call this city Denver East but that’s exactly the way the Pioneers would have it.
Heck, just the sheer mention of Boston brings a smile to the face of any DU alum and fan. 18 years ago this weekend, the Pioneers played two mind-boggling, stressful games to come away with the program’s sixth title. In the first game, Denver had to come back against an altogether more skilled, and in some ways better Minnesota Duluth team which boasted that year’s Hobey Baker Award winner, Junior Lessard. After spotting UMD a 3-1 lead through two periods, the Pioneers turned things around in the third, scoring four times including three in the first 10 minutes of the period.
Then, of course, came the national title game against Maine which really should need no introduction, but the video is below, just so you can reminisce:
That’s the history that these 2021-2022 Pioneers have to look at and live up to in this city this weekend which doesn’t even take into account the storied history with Michigan. In other words, the Pios would be forgiven if all of this weighed heavy on their shoulders this weekend. But it doesn’t.
On Wednesday, after practice during the pre-Frozen Four press conference, the Pioneers were loose, relaxed, and looked quite at home at the TD Garden. If you didn’t know any better, you may have thought that the Pios were gearing up for a mid-January tilt at Magness Arena.
“We’re going to go for 9-8,” DU head coach David Carle joked when asked about the matchup with Michigan and how open the ice may be between two high-octane offenses. His answer caused the entire press conference room to bust into laughter
That feeling of being at home out here should serve the Pioneers well this weekend as the Pioneers went 17-1-1 at Magness Arena and 21-1-1 in the state of Colorado this season. If they can channel their home-ice advantage, even if it’s only mental, it should set them up for success this weekend.
“I think you try and act and behave similarly,” Carle said of the preparation and comfort at the Frozen Four. “Throughout the year, again, we talked about this at the regional in the press conferences, but it’s not like it’s the first time we’ve ever talked about the Frozen Four or how you have to manage yourself in win-or-go-home games. We prepare a certain way for every weekend and every game throughout the year. Our preparation was the exact same this week as it was in the middle of February, as it was in the middle of November. So there’s that level of consistency and confidence that we’ve put in the work and the preparation to go out and put our best foot forward and have success.”
As comfortable as this city and venue are for the Pios, the task in front of them, beating two of their fellow top-five offenses, is tall. Michigan, of course, boasts their truckload of first-round NHL draft picks and have regularly left other teams in their dust. And like Denver, they’ve also only been shut out once this season. The closest comparison, at least on paper, that the Pioneers faced this season, was the high-octane (and shorthanded) St. Cloud State Huskies who finished the season tied for fourth (with Frozen Four-bound Minnesota) nationally with 3.6 goals per game. In their two games against the Huskies, Denver erased a 3-0 1st period lead to win 8-5 before pitching a shutout the next night.
“Obviously they got a lot of top-end players, a lot of high draft picks,” Guttman said of Michigan. “They’re a very skilled team so we’re going to have to be very defensively sound. I think we’re a skilled team, too, so we can go back at them in the same way they’re going to come at us. We’re going to have to play a full 60 like we’ve been playing in playoff hockey.”
Boston has been kind to Denver over the decades. While it wasn’t exactly great for them earlier this season when they lost to Providence and Boston College in their lone regular-season trip to the east coast this year, there is ample opportunity to right that ship this weekend.
The talk and anticipation finally end tomorrow, though. The four teams will finally hit the ice tomorrow afternoon and evening and get the 2022 Frozen Four underway. The Pioneers know what’s in front of them and what it would mean to win just two more games this season. If they can channel the kind ghosts of Pioneers’ teams past to feel at home at the TD Garden, Denver might just find a way to come home with trophy number nine.
The puck drops on Denver-Michigan tomorrow afternoon at 3pm mountain time on ESPN2. Refer to our watch and pre-game party post for details on where you may be able to join in the fun around the country.
Top photo courtesy of Denver Hockey via Twitter