April 14, 2005
Postcard: Double Vision

By Mike Eidelbes

If you think Denver’s march to this year’s NCAA championship looks familiar, you’d be right.

But 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.

“I remember 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.

Besides, 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.

“We 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.”

As the 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.

Both 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.

And 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.

“I 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.”

“We 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.”

Only 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.

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