NCAA Frozen Four: Denver, Minnesota-Duluth square off for national title

CHICAGO, IL – APRIL 06: A logo is seen on a door next to hockey sticks prior to an NCAA Frozen Four semifinal game with the Harvard Crimson and the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/teams/minnesota_duluth/" data-ylk="slk:Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs">Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs</a> on April 6, 2017, at the United Center in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL – APRIL 06: A logo is seen on a door next to hockey sticks prior to an NCAA Frozen Four semifinal game with the Harvard Crimson and the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs on April 6, 2017, at the United Center in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In a lot of ways — maybe every way — this felt inevitable.

Denver has been ranked as the No. 1 team in the country for each of the past five weeks and seven of the college hockey’s season 24 weeks total, winning when it matters. Winning in crunch time. Only once having struggled for an entire weekend, and that was the first one of the season.

Minnesota-Duluth was the No. 1 team in the country for nearly half the schedule, holding the top spot for 11 of 24 weeks, most recently in mid-February.

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They finished Nos. 1 and 2 in the NCHC, respectively, effectively separated by just a couple losses.

Both have great forwards. Both have better defensemen. Both have two of the six or seven best goalies in the country.

When they played their two-game series in Denver back in early December, they played to a split, with the Pioneers winning 4-3 the first night, and the Bulldogs getting a 3-1 win with an empty-netter in the mix on the second.

“I think run and gun is dangerous to play with a team like Denver,” said Duluth’s Willie Raskob, who set up the late game-winner on Thursday night. “You see they score a lot of goals. I wouldn’t say necessarily play a stay-at-home defensive game, by any means. We’re a team that can get up and down the ice too. The games we played in Denver were two very good games. 4-3, 3-1, I think that’s going to be the type of game it’s going to be.”

The hockey world was denied a rubber game in the NCHC tournament because Denver surprisingly took the L in the semifinals, but UMD won in their stead. Instead, the return engagement carries a lot more weight: win it and you’re the national champion (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Asked to describe the rivalry between them, Denver coach Jim Montgomery needed just two words: “Fiercely respectful.”

The road to get here was long, but these were the two best teams in the country pretty much all year (early-season concerns about a repeat performance from North Dakota were dispelled by goaltending and PK problems), and that the conference mates will meet now is the only logical conclusion to a season they’ve collectively dominated. When playing any team other than each other, they’re a combined 58-11-11. All but four of those losses were to NCAA tournament teams.

As noted last week, these are two teams that are extremely well-matched. They’re both good at attacking and defending, they both score roughly the same number of goals, and they’re elite in terms of actually outscoring their opponents (which you’d expect when you see their combined records).

But how they got to the cusp of a national title might provide a little bit of a preview into how the game itself might progress. Duluth has had to grind out win after win, beating two opponents (of widely varying quality) in the regionals in overtime and blowing late leads in both games. Then in Thursday’s national semifinal, they needed a goal inside of 27 seconds left in regulation to push past Harvard, admittedly the hottest team in the nation.

“I think we’ve lost once in the last 20 games, something like that,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. “Sometimes it doesn’t feel like that because all our games have been so hard and grinding. And sometimes you go through those streaks where you just feel you’re really on top of the world.”

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Meanwhile, Denver laid its NCAA tournament competition to waste. Wins of 5-2, 6-3, and then 6-1 actually flatter the competition in all cases. They outshot Michigan Tech 34-18, Penn State 28-27 (despite conceding a five-minute major to the heaviest-shooting team in the nation), and Notre Dame 42-17. They never trailed in this tournament run. They never even came close.

To be fair, they got a relatively easy path to the national final, as is their right given they’re the No. 1 team in the country, but the number of minutes they’ve even been tied for these games is just 20:45. Across three different games. Against national tournament teams. Denver was up 5-0 on Tech before the Huskies got two back. They led the Nittany Lions 5-2. They got up on the Irish 5-0. To put teams to the sword like this, in so brutal a fashion, is rare at this time of year.

Denver coach Jim Montgomery, for his part, says he’s not going to let his boys get too high on themselves or their smother performances.

“I mean, it’s nice you’ve got to let players enjoy it, but you gotta make sure you get back grounded because we know this is going to be the toughest game of the year,” he said. “We all know how good and talented Duluth is. They’re a mentally tough team. They’re hard in all three zones. They don’t give you an inch. And we know that. You’re going to have to go out and earn it. That’s why I think it’s going to be a great game tomorrow night.”

To the earlier point that Duluth doesn’t want to let Denver skate all over them, well, they have the personnel for it, being the sixth-tallest and fourth-heaviest team in the nation on average. They can lean on teams in a way few others can, and against a Denver team that’s heavily on the shorter and lighter side, being able to dictate that kind of physical, slightly slower game will be crucial.

That’s not to say, however, the Bulldogs don’t have very good players. Alex Iafallo has 50 points this season. Linemates Joey Anderson and Dominic Toninato can create offense out of nowhere, as evidenced by the game-winner on Thursday. Defenseman Neal Pionk has 33 points from the blue line and next year will probably become recognized as one of the top defensemen in the nation. Which he already is, but people will realize it collectively around November, 2017.

“They’re a great college line,” Montgomery said of Duluth’s two best forwards. “And I think maybe the best line in the country. And I think you’ve just got to know when they’re out there and match their intensity. Their intensity, I think, fuels that team. And I think the third player that fuels that team with intensity is Pionk on the back end.”

But to match that, Montgomery has the Hobey Baker winner on his blue line. And the Mike Richter winner in the crease. And three 40-plus-point forwards. He also might have a bit of an ace up his sleeve.

See, back when these two teams met in December, Denver was without one of those 40-point guys: Florida first-rounder Henrik Borgström. At the time of the team’s previous meetings, Borgström (whose creativity has caught plenty of attention on the sports highlight shows) was sick and didn’t play once. His ability to deliver one or two eye-popping plays should come in handy.

“Anytime you can inject one of the most talented offensive players in college hockey into a lineup that the team hasn’t seen, you can watch film on them,” Montgomery said. “But when you get on the ice, it’s a different world, especially for goaltenders. The first time they can see him shoot a puck, they can look at it on film, but the puck gets on you real quick. If you’re not used to it, it’s by you. … [He] has an NHL release, and hides his release.”

But if UMD feels like it might be willing to get a little more physical and steer Denver away from its game plan, Montgomery says that’s not going to happen.

Neither team is afraid of the other, but they know they have to play hockey as close to mistake-free as they can if they want to win this one.

After all, there haven’t been two better competitors all season, so why should the stage of this particular game change things?

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and occasionally covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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