NCAA Frozen Four: Lukosevicius hat trick powers Denver to national title

Denver players celebrate their 3-2 win over Minnesota-Duluth during an NCAA Frozen Four championship college hockey game, Saturday, April 8, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Denver players celebrate their 3-2 win over Minnesota-Duluth during an NCAA Frozen Four championship college hockey game, Saturday, April 8, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

In a battle of the two best teams in the country, for the national title, you need your best players to be at their best. And you need your role players to step up.

For the Denver Pioneers, relatively unheralded Jarid Lukosevicius (who had a respectable 29 points in 42 games coming in) did the stepping.

Lukosevicius scored a second-period hat trick, thanks to a lot of heavy lifting from Big Game Troy Terry, and Denver absorbed a furious Minnesota-Duluth comeback attempt en route to a 3-2 win, and the school’s eighth national title.

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“We won the regular season, they won the playoff, and we met in the championship game,” said Denver coach Jim Montgomery, who won the title in just his fourth year at the helm of the legendary program. “It speaks volumes about our conference and about the two teams headed for the collision course in the final game here. Once I saw the tournament bracket, I was happy we weren’t going to see them in the semifinal.”

It was the first hat trick in a Frozen Four game since Jim Montgomery, Lukosevicius’s coach, did it for Maine 24 years ago. Montgomery was named the top coach in the country this year.

Terry, the World Junior hero, piled up two more assists to run his total in the last three games to 3-6-9. Tanner Jaillet, crowned the top goalie in the country, was excellent making 38 saves to pick up the huge W. Will Butcher, the senior defenseman who just won the Hobey Baker, made a big impact at both ends.

Turns out, having the best coach, best goalie, best player, and best team is a big asset.

“I was worried yesterday with all those individual honors coming that we never thought about and the emotion of it,” Montgomery said. “I mean, you know when Will won the Hobey, it’s an incredible moment. And I’m wondering, here’s our best defenseman, is he going to have legs tomorrow night and give them credit they never thought about anything about themselves. He didn’t even spend time with his family. He’s like, ‘I’m going with you, Coach, we’re going back.’ It’s just a special group.”

Just in case anyone was worried Minnesota-Duluth would be able to prevent Denver from establishing its possession game early, here’s a stat: The Bulldogs didn’t get their first official shot on goal until 6:19 into the first period. By that time, Denver already had eight.

There was, however, some pushback. Duluth had seven of the next nine shots in the game, and another off the post, with one in particular being of very high quality. After that, the game boiled down to a push-pull battle for the remainder of the first period.

Maybe that was to Duluth’s favor. After all, the Pioneers had opened the scoring, and done it early, in each of their first three tournament games. The game was more stop-and-start than Denver might have liked, and being held off the scoreboard was a pretty good indicator that the Bulldogs had weathered a storm previous opponents simply could not.

Even a late power play, which generated some good looks, couldn’t actually break the scoreless deadlock.

“They did work us pretty good,” said Duluth’s Avery Peterson. “And they definitely, the ice went their way, but stayed in there and gave us a chance. Our first goal there was to shut down the first ten minutes of the period.”

Shots were 13-10, which was reflective of Denver having the marginally better period. But most problematically, almost all the offense Duluth was able to generate (six of their 10 shots) came from the top line. Meanwhile, nine different Pioneers had at least one shot on goal.

While that top Bulldog line generated some more great chances in the early goings of the second, Denver punched back hard through top-line left wing Lukosevicius.

First Lukosevicius tipped home a Michael Davies shot from between the top of the circles at 4:44 of the second period. Then just 16 seconds later he scored again to finish a gorgeous individual effort from Terry to get around a few defenders and goaltender Hunter Miska (25 saves).

It was the fastest two goals by one player in the history of the NCAA tournament, and all of a sudden, Denver had the runway it needed to take off.

“Gams and Troy did an unbelievable job,” Lukosevicius said. “They forechecked their butt off. And I wouldn’t have scored any of those goals if it wasn’t for those two. I just happened to stay in front of the net because I knew that they were going to shoot pucks or bring the puck to the net. And I was in the right place at the right time.”

While two goals certainly wasn’t an insurmountable lead, generally speaking, for the Bulldogs, pulling back two goals against a team like Denver? That’s a tall task. And things got eventful in a hurry.

Just 1:44 after the goal, Duluth drew a quick power play goal, and only 32 seconds later, Alex Iafallo scored a tic-tac-toe redirect to make it a one-goal game once again.

And while it appeared the game would settle down into another tug-of-war, Lukosevicius scored again to cap hit hat trick, this time from Dylan Gambrell (with Terry picking up a secondary), 5:07 later.

The game was still technically close, but the ability of the Pioneers to generate more consistently high-quality chances, and obviously burying them. Through 40 minutes, Grade-A chances were 18-12 in Denver’s favor (60 percent).

“It’s a big focus on how we play,” Montgomery said. “We want to play fast. We want to generate speed. And we talk about 10- to 15-foot puck support. If people aren’t moving their feet to get the space for their teammate, they’re not doing the right thing.”

The third period was marred when Tariq Hammond, who scored just his third goal of the season in Thursday’s national semifinal, got tangled up in his own zone and appeared to break his ankle crashing into the boards. The stretcher came out and carted him off, and there was some question as to how the Pioneers would respond.

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And because they’re the Pioneers, and despite the desperation of an excellent team like Duluth, they bent but simply refused to break. The Bulldogs finally started getting good, consistent pressure, but that’s why you have a great goaltender. Jaillet ably showed off his quality in the biggest game of his life, making a number of excellent saves to preserve the lead.

“We’ve been resilient all year,” said UMD’s Karson Kuhlman. “We came back multiple times throughout the season. And obviously in regionals there we fought to come back just to get to this point. So I think we had a lot of belief in our team. I mean, nobody doubted for a second that we couldn’t come back and tie that game up and eventually win it.”

But then, inside six minutes to go, Duluth generated a few good chances off the cycle (of course) and Riley Tufte banged a home a rebound at 5:21 to make ‘er a one-goal game again. The push had simply been too strong. At that point, third-period shots were 12-3 Bulldogs.

That was uncomfortable for the Pios, but they weathered it in the end, absorbing 17 shots in the final period, but only conceding once. Attempts in the third were a stunning 34-8, and 78-62 overall.

“I thought our guys went out there and played as well as they could,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin, who has now been to two national title games with the Bulldogs. “The effort, you saw the period. I mean, you know, we went after it. And sometimes maybe a little luck, maybe we ran out of puck clock, I don’t know, but we did what we had to do and couldn’t be more proud of our guys to battle right to the end.”

This was a change of pace, simply because the Pioneers had humiliated their NCAA tournament opponents, but you don’t get to be the No. 1 team in the country for a big chunk of the season by simply blowing everyone out.

To highlight just how stick-to-it Denver’s approach was, even Hammond, who broke his damn ankle about 25 minutes beforehand, was out on the ice to celebrate his team winning the national title.

“And his prognosis is probably a broken ankle,” Montgomery said. “And I guess it wasn’t easy for three orthopedic surgeons that were here to put it back in place. But I guess that’s how tough a kid he is. Once it was back in place, he wanted to hop out on the ice. Just shows the character of the individuals that we recruit at Denver.”

These guys just don’t quit.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.