Denver hoists the 2022 National Championship Trophy. Credit- Jason Scales (Inside Hockey)

Denver Tops Mankato in Third Period, Claims 9th National Crown

Boston, MA- At the start of the 2021-22 season, the Denver Pioneers were ranked 13th in the country. They were respected and acknowledged as a good team. But David Carle’s squad was not expected to stand at TD Garden’s center ice to hold up the National Crown at season’s end. Yet they surprised the sport and won the NCHC Regular Season Championship. They earned the program’s 18th Frozen Four trip over UMass Lowell and ended Minnesota Duluth’s run of four consecutive Frozen Fours in the process. Michigan’s wealth of talent pushed the Pioneers to the brink in the National Semi-Final. Denver survived and advanced for one more test against the Hobey Baker Award winner and the winningest team in the country: the Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks.

Early in the night, Denver’s offense failed the test. The Pioneers recorded a combined eight shots through the first forty minutes of game time. Three in the first period and five in the second. McKay steered all of them away.

Meanwhile, sophomore defenseman Mike Benning took a tripping penalty in the first period. And on the ensuing power play, Lafayette, CO, native Sam Morten punched home the game’s first goal 13:59 into the opening stanza.

The Mavericks outshot the Pioneers 8-3 in the opener and 10-5 in the second. But while the Denver offense swam in quicksand, the Pioneer’s goaltender provided a saving rope.

Stockholm, Sweden, native Magnus Chrona entered the weekend with the lowest save percentage of the four starting net-minders in Boston. The Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick only faced 21 shots from Michigan on Thursday but made 7 life saving overtime saves and 17 more in the first 40 minutes against Mankato. He bailed out the floundering Pioneers when they need it most. His skaters rewarded his efforts with their season’s best period of play in the finale.

Senior Ryan Barrow went first. He tracked a rebound off McKay’s pads to tie the game on Denver’s 10th shot of the game 4:46 into the third period. 2:47 later, Benning, who shot the puck that turned into Barrow’s goal, fully atoned for the early penalty and wired a puck through a Mankato defenseman and McKay to put Denver ahead for good, shocking the sellout crowd of 17,850 at TD Garden in the process.

Denver celebrates Mike Benning’s game winning goal against Minnesota State-Mankato. Credit- Jason Scales (Inside Hockey)

The attack did not let up. At the 13:34 mark, freshman Carolina Hurricanes draft pick Massimo Rizzo, lost in both the seventh round of the 2021 NHL draft and the third line of Denver’s forward crop, finished off a two-on-one attack to make the score 3-1.

Minnesota State offered some push back. They shot ten more pucks at Magnus Chrona and pulled Dryden McKay for an extra attacker. But to no avail. Chrona stopped all ten third period shots to run his game total to 27 of 28 shots faced. Brett Stapley potted one empty netter and Cameron Wright notched one more open twine exclamation mark to end the scoring at 5-1 in Denver’s favor.

Mike Hastings’ unit concludes the program’s best Division I season with a 38-6-0 overall record. They won a fifth consecutive Conference Regular Season Championship and fourth Conference Tournament Championship. They set a program record for wins with 38, reached the program’s second Frozen Four and first National Championship Game. And yet, the Mavericks leave Boston empty handed.

“I thought we got off to a good start, even a good 40 minutes,” observed the reigning Penrose winner Hastings. “And once we gave up the first one, I thought we started leaking oil a little bit and couldn’t stop the bleeding. They scored a power play goal to get it to two.  And then we started chasing the game a little bit.”

On Denver’s third period chances, Dryden McKay observed that “They capitalized. Then we took a penalty shortly after.  It was just a bad bounce.  And then a guy makes a nice shot on the power play.  All of a sudden it’s 2-1, and just never really recovered.  It would have been nice to make a few more saves for the guys, keep it at one or two, but it just didn’t happen.” He recorded 15 saves on 18 shots faced.

McKay concludes one of the most storied college hockey careers a goaltender has ever had. The Downers Grove, IL, native became the third goalie to walk away with the Hobey Baker Award and first in 21 seasons. He led Minnesota State to their first ever Division I Frozen Four and National Championship Game while setting the program record for wins and the national career record for shutouts (34).

“Dryden is going to be a lot more critical of himself than his coaches tonight,” noted Hastings. “…he’s helped elevate our program both on and off the ice. And he’ll handle tonight’s game just like he’s handled the enormous amount of wins that he’s had in a very humble manner.”

Fellow seniors Wyatt Aamodt (Captain), Jack McNeely(Alternate Captain), Julian Napravnik, Reggie Lutz (Alternate Captain), Andy Carroll, and UNH transfer Benton Maas conclude their seasons and quite possibly their collegiate careers. They all have an additional year of eligibility thanks to the pandemic wiping out the end of the 2019-20 season and all have to decide where they go.

Denver caps their ninth National Championship season with a 31-9-1 overall record. This ties Michigan for the most National Championships in the sport’s history.

“I owe a lot of what I have in my life to the university,” explained Head Coach David Carle. “And this program is very special.  It means the world to me. Our alumni group is very tight and it certainly was a goal to get to nine.  The ultimate goal is to be the first one to 10, I will tell you.  Winning Thursday against Michigan, the team at 9, was a huge step in that direction.  And obviously tonight is an even bigger step.”

Before going to play on the Pioneer hockey team. Carle was diagnosed with Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an enlargement of a heart muscle that has caused sudden death in multiple athletes. He ended his playing career, but Denver Head coach George Gwozdecky honored the scholarship offered to Carle and gave him a chance to transition into coaching. After a brief stint in the USHL with the Green Bay Gamblers, Gwozdecky’s replacement, Jim Montgomery, offered Carle a job as an assistant coach. In that role, Carle won a National Championship in 2017. Denver tapped Carle for the Head job when Montgomery took the Dallas Stars’ Head Coaching job. His personal journey to top championship glory ends in Boston as the fourth youngest Head Coach to win a National Championship. 

Magnus Chrona’s journey reaches a beautiful peak as well. He posted a .941 save percentage in seven postseason games, all of which were wins except the NCHC Semi-Final against Minnesota-Duluth, who he beat two games later to reach the Frozen Four. And he did all this against the back drop of family pain.

“I had a tragedy in the family in March before we played Colorado College.  My grandma passed away.  And ever since I dedicated every single win for her. And it’s definitely a relief that we won. And I did it for her.”

Mike Benning carved his own in-game arc from goat and seeming spark for a 1-0 National Championship loss into the Frozen Four MVP.

“It really pissed me off, I’m going to be honest,” he said of being in the box. “But I just felt I had to contribute in a way, just keep on going piece by piece.”

The Florida Panthers draft pick from St. Albert, Alberta recorded three points on the weekend, including a goal and an assist in the Final, setting up fellow Albertan Ryan Barrow for the equalizer and scoring the National Championship winning goal. He is the eighth different Pioneer to claim the Frozen Four MVP Award and first Pioneer defenseman to claim the honor since Keith Magnuson won it in 1969.

Magnus Chrona joined Benning on the All-Tournament Team, as did Carter Savoie, Ryan Barrow, and Minnesota State’s Jack McNeeley, and Sam Morton.

After a season which began shrouded in uncertainty, Covid restrictions, and limited attendance in much of the country, College hockey and Denver both feel back to normal. For the sport, that’s playing national championships in front of full crowds. For Denver, its in the winners circle. An unexpected trip for both the sport and the Pioneers, but a welcome trophy in the Rocky Mountains and a happily accepted return to normal everywhere else.