BOSTON — Nobody in America does hockey better than the University of Denver.
Sorry, Broncos. Nice try, Avs. But in our major-league, sports-crazy city, the Pioneers are tea franchise.
They won the ninth national championship in school history, with an eruption of five — count ’em, five — goals in the third period to overwhelm Minnesota State and Hobey Baker Award winning goalie Dryden McKay.
“We faced our biggest test. You’ve got to earn this trophy. And we earned it,” Denver coach David Carle said Saturday, after a back-from-the-brink, rousing 5-1 victory inside TD Garden.
“It’s not easy to play at Denver … It’s a big responsibility to play in our program.”
Through two periods, the Pioneers were stuck in molasses. Deep molasses. Able to produce only eight shots through two frames, they couldn’t find enough ice to make a frosty glass of lemonade, much less the time and space to challenge McKay.
The Pioneers play a beautiful game. But it was down-and-dirty grit, not to mention steely, never-surrender will, that allowed DU to shake, rattle and ultimately roll the Mavericks, who entered the night on an 18-game winning streak.
On his record-setting 168th game in a crimson-and-gold sweater, Ryan Barrow won it all.
“You come to Denver to win national championships,” said Barrow, who arrived on campus shortly after the Pios won their eighth championship in 2017, then stuck with it, through the COVID-19 pandemic and all. “It took five years, but we’re here now. Unbelievable feeling.”
It was a lunch-bucket goal by Barrow, who rolled up his sleeves and got down to business in the crease, that finally got Denver on the board at 4 minutes, 46 seconds of the final period, evening the score at 1-1. The invincibility of McKay was shattered, and soon thereafter, Pioneers defenseman Mike Benning zinged a shot from the left circle into the back of the net.
“Once we gave up a goal, we started leaking oil,” Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said. The Pioneers, he added, “smelled blood in the water and got incredibly aggressive.”
Back at the corner of University and Evans in Denver, it was time to crank up the party.
The Pioneers scored three more times in the final 6:26 of the third period, with goals by Massimo Rizzo, Brett Stapley and Cameron Wright giving the illusion of a rout in what had been a long night of unrelenting struggle required by DU to finish the season with a sterling 31-9-1 record.
Ever try to skate on a wool blanket? Any time Denver entered the attack zone with the puck, Minnesota State threw a thick, scratchy, wet blankie at the Pioneers’ feet. Bobby Brink and Carter Savoie, the two most dangerous offensive threats in DU’s high-scoring attack, were smothered in unwanted attention by Mavericks defensemen who hammer hip checks now and beg your forgiveness later.
Thwarted in their pedal-to-the-metal transition game, the Pios played the opening 20 minutes with knitted brows, not quite flustered, but definitely frustrated, with three shots the fewest in any period this season since December.
Sam Morton, who lived in Lafayette and skated for the Colorado Thunderbirds as a teenager, staked Minnesota State to a 1-0 lead with a power play goal, the result of a careless tripping penalty committed by Benning shortly past the midway point of the first period.
“I just think we weren’t playing very well, outside of our goaltender,” Carle said.
While I’m not here to question the wisdom of Hobey Baker voters, if McKay is the best college hockey player in the country, I’m more handsome than George Clooney. The hardest-working and best goalie on the ice was Denver junior Magnus Chrona, because he had to be, stoning shot after shot by Minnesota State to give the Pioneers a fighting chance.
“I’ve got to give a shoutout to Magnus,” Barrow said. “For the first 40 minutes, I don’t think our team really realized we were in the national championship game. He stood on his head.”
After his grandmother passed away in March, “I’ve dedicated every win to her,” said Chrona, who made 27 saves, none bigger than a stop of Minnesota State center David Silye on a short-handed, breakaway chance.
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide. And Duke is synonymous with basketball excellence. Goal Denver is the gold standard of college hockey.
Nine championships, tying DU with the University of Michigan for the most titles won by any program? Are you kidding me? That’s success beyond the wildest dreams of most athletic programs. But nine ain’t enough for the Pioneers.
“It certainly was a goal to get to nine,” Carle said. “The ultimate goal is to be the first (college hockey program) to get to 10, I will tell you.”