Throughout the 2016-2017 season, the Denver Pioneers and the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs were the two best teams in college hockey. They battled all season in the NCHC with Denver winning the regular season crown and Duluth winning the postseason trophy. They were rewarded for their seasons with the top two seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
Denver dominated all their opponents while Duluth broke hearts in three one goal games en route to the United Center for the final night of the college hockey season. The teams faced off for the National Championship on Saturday night and demonstrated the beauty, intensity, brutality, and heart on display night in and night out on 60 campuses throughout the United States.
Denver outscored opponents 8-0 in their first three NCAA tournament game-goal and looked to put Duluth in an early hole too. Duluth’s freshman goalie Hunter Miska did not scare easily all season and did not cave under an avalanche of Denver shots. The Pioneers got nine shots in the first 5:17 of the game and did not score. Duluth did not get a shot away early, but the Bulldogs battled back late in the period. They cut the shot disparity down and proved that they would not fold. Tanner Jaillet and Hunter Miska saved every shot in the period and the game went to the first intermission scoreless. Denver only led the shot total 13-10.
The second period saw the scoring open up. Denver’s offense took over the period behind a historic performance by sophomore left winger Jarid Lukosevicius. At the 4:44 mark, The Squamish, British Columbia, native buried a shot from the high slot to put Denver ahead 1-0. 16 seconds later, Lukosevicius netted another one, this on Duluth’s doorstep. Denver looked to overwhelm Duluth, but the Bulldogs had more fight in them. 1:44 after the second goal, Matt Marcinew was called for a hooking penalty. On the ensuing power play, Alex Iafallo netted a pass from Joey Anderson to cut the Pioneer’s lead to 2-1.
Denver got momentum right back five minutes later. They drove the puck to the net after a Duluth turnover and Lukosevicius scored his third goal of the period. The last hat trick in the Frozen Four was in the 1993 National Title game between Maine and Lake Superior State when Jim Montgomery, the current Pioneer coach, scored a third-period hat trick to win the game and most outstanding player. Lukoseviciuus mirrored his coach many years prior, putting Denver ahead 3-1 going into the break.
Denver looked to overwhelm Duluth, but the Bulldogs had more fight in them. 1:44 after the second goal, Matt Marcinew was called for a hooking penalty. On the ensuing power play, Alex Iafallo netted a pass from Joey Anderson to cut the Pioneer’s lead to 2-1. Denver got momentum right back five minutes later. They drove the third-period after a Duluth turnover and Lukosevicius scored his third goal of the period. The last hat trick in the Frozen Four was in the 1993 National Title game between Maine and Lake Superior State when Jim Montgomery, the current Pioneer coach, scored a third-period hat trick to win the game and most outstanding player. Lukoseviciuus mirrored his coach many years prior, putting Denver ahead 3-1 going into the break.
With all the momentum going their way, Denver was expected to win the game after the second period. It would take a herculean defensive effort to do so. Duluth has experience in the tournament playing in close games and it showed in the third period.
Denver was also hit with a major blow early in the period to their personnel. Duluth took possession in Denver’s zone and went for the puck on the corner boards. Tariq Hammond and Jared Thomas got tangled up and Hammond landed hard against the ice. He did not get up. The whistle blew and Hammond was taken off the ice in a stretcher. He gave a thumbs up to the crowd, but his ankle was broken. Denver had to skate against a hungry Bulldog team with only five defensemen for the final 16:50 of the season.
Duluth took their chances and made it a classic. They fired 17 shots on Tanner Jaillet in the third, matching the shot total Notre Dame got against him in the prior game. Jaillet stood strong and kept his team alive. But not without a major scare. With 5:21 left, Riley Tufte got to the front of Jaillet’s crease and put home a goal to cut Denver’s lead to 3-2.
Duluth had the momentum, the louder side of the crowd, the health, and the energy to cut the lead to zero and force overtime. They got another rush and made Denver fans fear another season ending in disappointment. The Pioneers had the Hobey Baker winner in Will Butcher, the Mike Richter winner in Tanner Jaillet, and the drive to win the national championship. With Hunter Miska pulled and Duluth on the final push for overtime, Jaillet and the Pioneers stood strong, clearing the puck and winning a 3-2 thriller, clinching the program’s eighth National Championship.
The All-Tournament Team included Neal Pionk, and Alex Iafallo of Duluth and Will Butcher, Troy Terry, Jarid Lukosavecius, and Tanner Jaillet of Denver. For his hat trick in the championship game, Jarid Lukosavecius was selected as the most outstanding player of the Frozen Four, almost repeating his head coach’s performance in Milwaukee in 1993.
After the game, Duluth’s captain, Dominic Toninato, was saddened in defeat but proud of how his team persevered all season and all night. Head Coach Scott Sandelin echoed his captain’s words, especially for goaltender Hunter Miska. The freshman proved that he is one of the top collegiate netminders, making 25 saves in the game, 13 in the first period in a patented Denver rush.
The Bulldogs end their season with a 28-7-7 record, winning their first NCHC Tournament, and making their second trip to the Frozen Four in seven seasons. Seniors Dan Molenaar, Carson Soucy, Brendan Kotyk, Kyle Osterberg, captain Toninato, and All-American Alex Iafallo end their careers in bitter defeat, but proud of their accomplishments in Duluth.
Denver ties North Dakota for the second most NCAA Titles with eight. After the game, the players praised the mental toughness of the team, especially with the mission after losing to North Dakota the prior year in the Frozen Four. Will Butcher walked off with the net hanging on his shoulders and Jim Montgomery walked into the press conference room slamming the trophy on the table yelling, “Here you go boys!” before joining his team at the podium.
Tariq Hammond joined the team on the ice for the celebration and team photo, moving with help from his teammates. Seniors Matt VanVoorhis, Evan Cowley, Evan Ritt, Emil Romig, Evan Janssen, Matt Marcinew, and captain Will Butcher arrived with Jim Montgomery to the Mile High city. They end their careers with one of the great Championship games played and their Pioneers as the best team in the country.