It’s No. 1 Denver vs. No. 2 Minnesota Duluth for College Hockey’s Grand Prize

CHICAGO — It’s No. 1 vs. No. 2, again. It’s the National Collegiate Hockey Conference regular-season champion against the NCHC tournament champion. It’s the two best teams from December, and now. It’s Denver and Duluth — fittingly.
In a quintessential NCAA title game Saturday night at the United Center, the top-seeded Pioneers (32-7-4) take on the No. 2 Bulldogs of Minnesota Duluth (28-6-7) in a win-win situation for the Colorado Springs-based NCHC. The country’s most competitive conference had the country’s top-two ranked teams most of the season, and the sport’s final game of the season is a rematch of the two-game series at Magness Arena in December, when UMD was ranked No.1 and DU was No. 2.
Denver coach Jim Montgomery, who is trying to become the fourth person to win an NCAA title as a player and head coach, summed up the rivalry in two words: “Fiercely respectful.”
UMD, which won 3-1 in Denver on Dec. 10 to salvage a series split — the Pioneers won the opener 4-3 — is on an eight-game winning streak and 8-1-1 in its last 10 games. DU is 17-1 in its last 18 games, with the lone loss coming March 17 to North Dakota in the NCHC semifinals. The Bulldogs went on to beat North Dakota for the NCHC tournament championship.
Denver routed Notre Dame 6-1 in Thursday’s national semifinals and is seeking its eighth national title. Minnesota Duluth, which scored in the final minute of regulation to beat Harvard 2-1 in the other semifinal, is vying for its second.
“We all know how good and talented Duluth is,” Montgomery said before practice Friday at the United Center. “They’re a mentally tough team. They’re hard in all three zones. They don’t give you an inch. 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.”
Denver has advanced to its 11th national title game in relatively easy fashion. The Pioneers rolled over Michigan Tech (5-2) and Penn State (6-3) at the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati before Thursday’s blowout over the Fighting Irish. The Pios have outscored their three opponents 8-1 in the first period and built 5-0 leads against Michigan Tech and Notre Dame.
The Bullodgs, on the other hand, have won three thrillers — beginning with 3-2 overtime wins against Ohio State and Boston University at the West Regional in Fargo, N.D. Forward Alex Iafallo scored with 27 seconds remaining to beat Harvard, which led 1-0 early.
“Our team has certainly had their character tested a lot in the second half,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “We haven’t had any blowout games. But I think our guys have grown a little tighter together. I think that drive, when you start finding ways to win those games, continues to grow.”
UMD will gets its first look playing against DU leading scorer Henrik Borgstrom, the freshman from Finland who missed the December series with an illness.
“I saw those games. We lost one,” Borgstrom said. “It’s going to be good to play for it all against another NCHC team. It feels unreal to be here, so excited and don’t really know what to say right now.”
Montgomery said his freshman’s influence could be big for the Pioneers. “Anytime you can inject one of the most talented offensive players in college hockey into a lineup that the opposing team hasn’t seen, it’s a benefit,” the coach said. “When you get on the ice (against Borgstrom), it’s a different world, especially for goaltenders.”
But Denver is far from a one-dimensional offensive team. The Pioneers generally play four lines equally at even-strength and received two goals from their so-called fourth line Thursday.
“Coach has the confidence to put out all four lines and our line just wants to go out there and contribute in whatever way we can,” said 23-year-old sophomore Colin Staub, a Colorado Springs product who assisted on goals by seniors Emig Romig and Evan Ritt against Notre Dame. “And last night we were fortunate enough to be able to get two goals, and it really helped our team get started with Romig’s first goal of the game. And that’s just what we want to provide.”
Denver is equally impressive defensively — with junior goalie Tanner Jaillet and talented defensemen led by seniors Will Butcher and Matt VanVoorhis, juniors Adam Plant and Tariq Hammond and sophomore Blake Hillman.
“They’ve got some great skill and shiftiness,” Sandelin said of DU’s blue line. “You’ve got to be careful. You can try and play really aggressive in their face, but they support the puck so well and those guys are pretty elusive that you’ve got to certainly play above the puck. Be aggressive when you can be.
But just defensively you’ve got to be tight. And you’re going to have to weather some storms. They’re going to play in the offensive zone and they transition well. But in the offensive zone, they possess the puck, they move, they get five men involved in the attack, and obviously they’ve got some great guys to finish around the net.”
NCAA Tournament, Frozen Four championship game/comparisons
Minnesota Duluth (28-6-7) vs. Denver (32-7-4)
Coach: Scott Sandelin (315-283-82, 17th year) … Jim Montgomery (101-47-11, fourth year)
Goals/for: 3.37 3.47
Goals/against: 2.24 1.81
Power play: 19.8% 21.5%
Penalty kill: 80.9% 84.1%
Avg. height / weight: 6-1/196 5-11/182
Last five games: 5-0 4-1
Leading scorers:
F Alex Iafallo, Sr. 20-30-50 … F Troy Terry, So. 22-21-43
F Adam Johnson, So. 18-19-37 … F Henrik Borgstrom, Fr. 22-21-43
F Joey Anderson, Fr. 12-24-36 …. F Dylan Gambrell, So. 13-28-41
D Neal Pionk, So. 7-26-33 …. D Will Butcher, Sr. 7-30-37
F Dominic Toninato, Sr. 16-13-29 … F Jarid Lukosevicius, So. 13-16-29
Starting goaltenders:
Hunter Miska, Fr. 27-4-5, 2.17 GAA, .921 SP … Tanner Jaillet, Jr. 27-5-4, 1.83, .928