If you think
Denver’s march to this year’s NCAA championship looks
familiar, you’d be right.
wait. This year’s triumph was not at all like the Pioneers’
improbable run to the 2004 national crown. In fact, DU’s
back-to-back championships have a lot of similarities to the twin
titles won by Minnesota in 2002 and 2003.
my freshman and sophomore years sitting at home and watching the
Frozen Four,” Denver senior forward Luke Fulghum recalled.
“My freshman year, we probably should have been there with
Minnesota. I remember sitting back there thinking, we should beat
these guys…we could’ve beat these guys…we’re
just as good as these guys.”
Well, in a
lot of ways, they are those guys. Let’s start with
the empirical evidence. The year they won their first title under
Don Lucia, the Gophers had a good – not great – regular
season, just like Denver in 2003-04. Neither team won the WCHA
playoff title. And neither blew the doors off its opponents in
the NCAA Tournament, and both runs ended with narrow title-game
wins over Maine. And though forward Grant Potulny was named Most
Outstanding Player at the 2002 Frozen Four, one could’ve
made a strong case for goaltender Adam Hauser, a senior whose
play was not unlike that of Denver’s Adam Berkhoel, the
MOP in 2004.
didn’t you just think Denver was going to win it all in
Boston? And didn’t you have a feeling Minnesota was going
to triumph in St. Paul? The way things broke for both teams –
Matt Koalska’s scrambling goal to send the championship
game into OT in 2002, the penalty by Maine’s Michael Schutte
that led to Potulny’s game-winner, the Black Bear goal waved
off in ’04 because Mike Hamilton’s toe was in the
crease, DU successfully killing a 6-on-3 in the game’s waning
moments – it was like the outcome had been pre-determined
by a greater force before the puck dropped.
really got on a roll last year and the momentum got to a point
where it was destiny,” Denver senior defenseman Matt Laatsch
said of the 2003-04 team. “We did sneak up. We had to battle
to get home ice for our own league playoffs.”
defending national champions, both Minnesota in 2002-03 and Denver
this season were marked targets and both had significant issues
to address. The Gophers had to break in a green goaltender, Travis
Weber, while youngsters Glenn Fisher and Peter Mannino learned
on the job for the Pioneers. The Gophers needed to replace their
top veteran forward (John Pohl) and defenseman (Jordan Leopold),
much like the Pioneers had to do with Connor James and Ryan Caldwell.
teams got off to sluggish starts as they chased back-to-back championships
– the Gophers were 7-4-4 on Dec. 1, 2002, while the Pioneers
were 5-5-0 on Nov. 17, 2004 – but were virtually untouchable
thereafter. Minnesota posted a 21-4-5 record en route to its second
consecutive crown. Denver rebounded after its first 10 games to
go 27-4-2 the rest of the way.
unlike their first championships where karma seemed to be a factor,
the Gophers and Pioneers got their second titles because they
weren’t going to let anyone else take their trophy. Players
and coaches talk about hoping to win, or expecting to win. Minnesota
and Denver repeated as champions because they knew they’d
win. For example, the Pioneers felt they had turned in a lackluster
effort against Colorado College in last week’s Frozen Four
semifinals…and won 6-2.
think this team really came together this season,” junior
forward Gabe Gauthier said. “To win the title again this
season is better than winning it last year because this time around
it was a lot tougher. We had to prove that we could win with everybody
gunning for us.”
were able to develop into a great team my junior and senior years,”
Fulghum added. “We snuck up on ‘em a little bit last
year, but we didn’t surprise anyone this year.”
once has a school won three straight NCAA Frozen Four championships.
Should the Pioneers accomplish that feat in Milwaukee less than
a year from now, comparisons to Minnesota – or any other
program – will cease.