With a 3–2 victory over University of Minnesota Duluth on Saturday night in Chicago, the University of Denver didn’t just capture its eighth NCAA national championship. The Pioneers, once again, cemented their place as the best hockey program in the nation.
Sophomore wing Jarid Lukosevicius earned Frozen Four MVP honors for his hat trick, which he scored in a span of just 7:39 in the game’s second period. The last time such a feat was managed was by DU coach Jim Montgomery, who scored a third-period hat trick that led Maine to the 1993 championship.
Colorado native Troy Terry chipped in two assists, and goalie Tanner Jaillet made 38 saves against a pressing Bulldogs attack—earning him the Mike Richter Award for the nation’s best goaltender—to help the Pioneers’ earn their first title since 2005.
“[Jaillet] was incredible in the third period,” Montgomery said in a press conference after the game. “His confidence and poise and how secure he was in controlling rebounds gave us confidence we were going to be able to prevail.”
The Pioneers are now tied with North Dakota for the second most championships in NCAA history behind Michigan’s nine titles, although the Wolverines have not won a championship since 1998 and have not made a Frozen Four appearance since 2011.
Meanwhile, DU has progressed every season under Montgomery. In 2014—Montgomery’s first with the team—the Pios fell in the first round of the tournament. Over the past two seasons, the team improved to enjoy quarterfinal and semifinal showings. That progress culminated on Saturday, serving the 2017 senior class a fought-after championship.
“It’s a little bit romantic that it’s my fourth year, so I feel like I’m graduating with them,” Montgomery said after the game. “But it’s also incredible, because their commitment has been unreal to the program, especially in the last 18 months. And what they learned from Grant Arnold, who was an incredible captain for two years, it helped me change the culture into a selfless one and about the team first and not about individuals.”
Last season’s semifinal loss to North Dakota set the table for this year’s #Skate4Eight social media campaign, and lit a fire under the Pioneers to make sure they had a different outcome at the end of this season.
“After that loss, it seemed like everybody was focused from that day on to become better and become committed to excellence like we always talk about,” said senior defenseman Will Butcher, recipient of the 2017 Hobey Baker Award, given annually to college hockey’s top player.
But despite the motivation and an embarrassment of riches in its lineup—six DU players have been drafted into the NHL—the Pioneers (32-7-4) knew that even as the tournament’s top seed, nothing was guaranteed.
“I never feel like there’s a team of destiny—I always worry about when things are going too well, about making sure we stay grounded and we hold each other accountable,” Montgomery said. “And I think that loss to North Dakota [in 2016] helped us in that way.”
To win the championship, the No. 1 Pioneers had to fend off a familiar National Collegiate Hockey Conference foe in the No. 2 Bulldogs, a team DU had split games with in early December. It marked the 208th meeting between the longtime rivals.
“We won the regular season, they won the [NCHC] playoff, and we met in the championship game,” Montgomery said. “It speaks volumes about our conference and about the two teams headed for the collision course in the final game here. Once I saw the tournament bracket, I was happy we weren’t going to see them in the semifinal.”
What’s next for the Pios? They’ll lose eight seniors to graduation—the most notable of which being Butcher—with the possibility that a few more top players will depart for the NHL.
As for Montgomery, who signed a five-year contract last summer, the coach told The Denver Post in March, “I don’t even know if I would leave for an NHL coaching job.”
DU and its fanbase can only hope that to be the case, because with Montgomery at the helm for the foreseeable future, this year’s title may very well be the beginning of a modern college hockey dynasty.