CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 06: Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs wing Kyle Osterberg (8) in action in the third period of an NCAA Frozen Four semifinal game with the Harvard Crimson and the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs on April 6, 2017, at the United Center in Chicago, IL. Bulldogs won 2-1 to move on to the championship game. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey includes 60 different programs, from Alaska-Fairbanks to Alabama-Huntsville, from Maine to Arizona State. From fall to spring, the teams each played around 40 games, after which, using conference tournaments and a formula I will not try to explain (I would first need someone to explain it to me), 16 teams are selected to battle to a national championship.

Those 16 contenders were split into four groups, each set ranked one through four. The tournament is conducted in a one-and-done format, so teams must be on their best behavior to extend their seasons for one more game.

In the first group, located in Cincinnati, top seeded Denver defeated Michigan Tech, while third seed Penn State destroyed Union 10-3. Denver advanced out of the group with a 6-3 decision over Penn State the next day.

In Manchester, New Hampshire, top seed Minnesota was upset by fourth seed Notre Dame in a tight 3-2 affair, while second seed UMass-Lowell put down third seed Cornell, 5-0. The group final required overtime for Notre Dame to continue their Cinderella run, as they beat U-Mass-Lowell 3-2 with an Andrew Oglevie goal 2:44 into the extra frame.

In Providence, Rhode Island, the hometown Providence Friars, NCAA champions as recently as 2015 were only the fourth seed in their own home arena, and were shut out, 3-0, by first seed Harvard. IN the other matchup up, third seeded Air Force upset second seed Western Michigan 5-4. Harvard advanced out of the group with a 3-2 victory over Air Force in the second round.

In the final group, located in Fargo, North Dakota, the defending champion University of North Dakota, although not technically in their home rink, were ostensibly the home favorites as the third seed, but feel in the first round, in double overtime, to second seed Boston University, 4-3. Meanwhile, top seed Minnesota-Duluth defeated Ohio State 3-2 in boring old single overtime. In the interest of symmetry, Minnesota-Duluth and Boston University went to overtime for the second round game, eventually won by the higher seed, 3-2, on a power play goal by Adam Johnson less than two minutes into the fourth period.

That frantic weekend set the stage for the Frozen Four, whose combatants were previewed in greater depth last week.

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 06: Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs wing Kyle Osterberg (8) in action in the third period of an NCAA Frozen Four semifinal game with the Harvard Crimson and the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs on April 6, 2017, at the United Center in Chicago, IL. Bulldogs won 2-1 to move on to the championship game. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 06: Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs wing Kyle Osterberg (8) in action in the third period of an NCAA Frozen Four semifinal game with the Harvard Crimson and the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs on April 6, 2017, at the United Center in Chicago, IL. Bulldogs won 2-1 to move on to the championship game. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

Game 1: Harvard vs Minnesota-Duluth

As the games were in Chicago, it just so happened that Notre Dame was the closest NCAA hockey campus to the United Center, normally the home rink of the Chicago Blackhawks. As such, most tickets were scooped up by fans of the Fighting Irish and many were not too concerned with arriving in time to see the first matchup. That is too bad, as that first game was tightly fought and remained close for all 60 minutes of action.

Although the combined penalties called in the game (six in total between the two teams) would not betray it, this was a fairly chippy game, a tone set early on when Duluth blueliner Willie Raskob crushed Harvard’s Luke Esposito just inside his own blueline. Esposito took Raskob’s number on his way to the ice and retaliated a few seconds later, behind the Duluth net, a hit which forced him to the penalty box for boarding. Harvard was given a power play opportunity shortly after killing that first penalty.

The two sides traded chances for much of the first period, with Harvard getting on the board first, with a goal on their third power play of the period. Stud freshman blueliner Adam Fox got the puck down low on the right wing to senior Alexander Kerfoot. The latter whipped a pass across the crease to senior Tyler Moy, who three days later signed an entry level contract with the Nashville Predators. Despite the puck deflecting off a UMD defender, Moy got his stick on the puck and beat netminder Hunter Miska with the wide shot.

Less than three and a half minutes later, the Bulldogs had equalized. On a faceoff in the Harvard end, senior Dominic Toninato won the draw and pushed the puck back a few inches into no-man’s land. Freshman Joseph Anderson was first to the biscuit and, from directly in the slot, but with a sea of bodies between him and Harvard goalie Merrick Madsen in the crease, his quick snap shot handcuffed the Crimson goalie, with the puck squirting between the latter’s legs, knotting the game at one a piece.

The two teams continued to trade the run of play over much of the remaining 40+ minutes. That said, Minnesota-Duluth were creating higher quality chances than their counterparts were able. The overall shot counter showed that Harvard had a slight possession lead, as they outshot Minnesota-Duluth 40-38. That said, the Harvard goalie had to work a lot more for his saves than did Hunter Miska for the Bulldogs. In a vacuum, that may not say much, but Merrick Madsen is a fine goaltending prospect. The Bulldogs were simply able to move the puck around in the offensive zone more than Harvard was able. With a worse goalie, UMD may have run up the score.

Finally, as most in attendance, including the late arriving Notre Dame supporters were feeling resigned to the first game going to overtime and pushing back the starting time on the late game indeterminably, the Bulldogs shocked and delighted the audience and themselves with a goal in the final minute of regulation. Earlier goal scorer Joey Anderson ended up with the puck along the half-wall after a scrum near the point in Harvard’s zone. He fired a cross-ice pass to the left wing, where blueliner Willie Raskob was streaking into an open spot. As the Harvard defense began to collapse, Alex Iafallo was in the clear in front of the net first and Raskob sent the puck towards his teammate after faking a shot. Iafallo had to only deflect the puck on net where it slipped through Madsen’s five hole.

Harvard played the final 25 seconds with that type of uncertainty you only see from a trailing team when its season is on the line but not out of reach. With the extra attacker, the established the Minnesota-Duluth zone and the output of their pressure was two pucks off the post in the dying seconds. Alas, they could not beat Miska again. UMD, which had been ranked first in the nation for large portions of the season, had booked its ticket to the championship match with a 2-1 victory over Harvard.

Game 2: Denver vs Notre Dame

As mentioned above, many locally based Notre Dame supporters began to file into the arena towards the tail end of the first game. The gaps that had previously dotted the United Center were all filled in by the time the Denver school band played the national anthem. While the Star Spangled Banner went smoothly for the first game, in this one, the emcee left his microphone on and was audibly humming for a few bars, before he heard himself – along with 19,000 or so other attendees – and rectified the matter.

If the anthem faux pas had a few people squirming in their seats early, the Notre Dame boosters were downright uncomfortable by the first intermission. Not only had Denver gone to the break carrying a 2-0 lead, but Notre Dame simply could not hang on to the puck. More telling than the early score line was the shot counter, showing Denver with a 13-3 edge at the break. Both Denver goals came as the result of wrap around plays. For the first, Pioneer fourth liner Emil Romig skated around the net from left to right and, instead of trying to stuff the puck through Cal Petersen, he faded away from the crease at the other end, flipping the puck over Petersen’s left shoulder with the hockey equivalent of a fadeaway jumpshot. Shortly thereafter, Denver star blueliner Will Butcher, who would be awarded with the Hobey Baker Award the next day, raced in to the crease area from the right, came out back again on the left and fired a cross-crease pass that was tapped in by Henrik Borgstrom.

The Pioneers were in full control of the puck again in the second period, outshooting Notre Dame 16-8 in those 20 minutes. Their dominance paid off with three late period goals, as Tariq Hammond, Dylan Gambrell, and Evan Ritt all scored in the span of 4:07. The Gambrell goal was another wraparound success while Hammond and Ritt were both able to capitalize on inexplicable giveaways in the Notre Dame end by otherwise reliable players. By the time the horn sounded to mark the end of the period, the majority of Notre Dame fans had left the building.

There was less to report from the third period. Denver controlled possession again, outshooting ND 13-6, and the Fighting Irish earned their consolation goal, Cam Morrison tipping a power play point shot from Jordan Gross into the net. Dylan Gambrell later scored again for Denver. While going in as if to wrap the puck around the net, he spotted Petersen moving clumsily to guard the posts. Before curling around the net, Gambrell instead flicked the puck off Petersen’s left inseam, and into the net.

Few Notre Dame fans were left to witness the indignity. As impressive as Denver had been in the first two rounds against Michigan Tech and Penn State, their dismantling of Notre Dame in the semifinals left no doubt that they were the favorites heading into the last collegiate game of the year.

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 08: Denver Pioneers forward Jarid Lukosevicius (14) scores a goal in the second period during the NCAA men's national championship game between the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs and the Denver Pioneers on April 8, 2017, at United Center in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 08: Denver Pioneers forward Jarid Lukosevicius (14) scores a goal in the second period during the NCAA men's national championship game between the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs and the Denver Pioneers on April 8, 2017, at United Center in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

NCAA Final: Minnesota-Duluth vs Denver

Two days’ notice were enough for the United Center to fill up with a healthy contingent of supporters from Duluth and environs. Much like Notre Dame fans from two nights before, the Bulldogs fans came to witness what looked like a potential drubbing at the hands of Denver. The Pioneers played another 20 minutes of high end hockey, giving UMD little room to breathe. Denver only led 13-10 in shots, and there were no goals in the first 20 minutes of play, but they were consistently the more dangerous team. Furthermore, Denver were very close to the early lead, with Duluth only holding on for the grace of the post, which denied Denver winger Logan O’Connor twice in a single shift.

Denver’s efforts began to pay off early in the second. The play began in their own zone. Joey Anderson of the Bulldogs had a great scoring chance on a deflected puck, but Denver netminder Tanner Jaillet got across in time to push the puck away. Blake Hillman got the puck out of the zone and up to fellow blueliner Michael Davies. Davies fired a slapshot in from the point which was tipped in the slot by Jarid Lukosevicius.

6 seconds later, Lukosevicius struck again. Again, he was the beneficiary of the hard work of his teammates. This time, WJC hero Troy Terry danced the puck through the zone to the goalie’s right before losing control near the slot. The puck slid to the left and lucky Luko was there to bang it home. Two goals in 16 seconds and it was almost time to start watching the clock.

Of course, Minnesota-Duluth was not ready to give up, and just over two minutes later, they were back in the game. Alex Iafallo was the author of their first goal. After drawing a penalty out of Denver with his dogged work around the slot, he also scored the power play marker. A Joey Anderson wrist shot was sailing wide until Iafallo got a stick on it, redirecting the puck past Jaillet.

Although UMD were putting more and more pressure, Denver was not yet truly sitting back. The Pioneers had some extended time in the UMD zone around the 12 minute mark. Once again, it was Lukosevicius getting on the score sheet. This time he pounced on another loose puck in the slot, slamming it home. It took a few seconds for fans to realize that it was the same player scoring again, but I counted at least three hats hitting the ice in homage to the hat trick marker.

Heading into the third period with a two goal lead and twenty separating them from the title of champions and Denver began to sit back. Their intention was to parry UMD until the final buzzer sounded. The shell game nearly failed. With under six minutes remaining, Dallas Stars first rounder Riley Tufte used his size advantage (he’s a big boy) to gain the puck in the Denver end. He passed it off to Avery Peterson in the corner, who fired a sharp angle shot off the netminder and back into the slot where Tufte had advanced and got in front of his defender. Tufte swatted the bouncing puck into the net setting up a thrilling last five minutes.

Jaillet was kept busy throughout the period, facing 17 shots over the 20 minute span, some of which could have been avoided were it not for some of his own unnecessarily risky attempts to play the puck forcing him out of position. UMD defender Neal Pionk was especially dangerous, spinning and juking his way out of the harm of Denver’s backcheck. After the Bulldogs pulled their goalie with around 95 seconds remaining, Denver struggled mightily to get the puck out of their own end.

Even though they controlled play in the Denver end for much of the last period, Minnesota-Duluth could not add to the Tufte goal. Denver netminder Jaillet, who was named recipient of the Mike Richter Award for top NCAA goaltender on the same night as his teammate Butcher won the Hobey, had stopped 38 of 40 shots to make sure that Lukosevicius’ hat trick stood up. For the eighth time in their history, and the first time since 2005, the Denver Pioneers were NCAA men’s hockey champions.

 

 

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