St. Paul, Minn. — With an NCHC regular-season title, a Hobey Baker Award and an NCAA championship won last season, the NCHC playoff crown was the only available trophy that eluded the University of Denver hockey team. Saturday night, the Pioneers completed the place setting.
A trio of goals in the first 22 minutes, and another stellar performance from goaltender Tanner Jaillet, propelled the Pioneers to a 4-1 victory over top-ranked St. Cloud State in the NCHC’s Frozen Faceoff championship game, giving DU the tournament crown for the second time in the event’s five-year history.
Jaillet finished with 28 saves and was named the tournament’s MVP. With goal support from Kohen Olischefski, Jake Durflinger, Ryan Barrow and Dylan Gambrell, the Pioneers are expected to enter the NCAA Tournament as the fifth overall seed. The field of 16 teams will be announced Sunday at 10 a.m. MDT on ESPNU.
“We’re playing the right way, and when we’re playing the right way, we believe,” Pioneers coach Jim Montgomery said, noting his team is playing its best hockey after a less-than-expected regular season. “Hopefully with our journey, it’s finally clicked. There’s no more shifts off. There’s no more anything off. It’s go time. It’s time to dance.”
The Pioneers, who were 2-1-1 against St. Cloud State in the regular season, got on the scoreboard first Saturday by capping a scramble for a loose puck in front of the net. Olischefski swatted at the puck, and it slid just over the goal line behind David Hrenak before a Huskies defender swatted it away. A referee signaled a goal immediately, and replays confirmed the puck was in the net. It was the first goal in a month for Olischefski, who last scored versus Colorado College on Feb. 17.
After killing a pair of penalties, the Pioneers doubled their lead in the final seconds of the opening period. Hrenak kicked aside a long-range shot by Logan O’Connor, but Durflinger pounced on the rebound and shot it in before the goalie could slide left to cover.
“That was huge. Personally, you don’t ever want to get scored on in the last two minutes of a period for momentum purposes,” Jaillet said. “Us getting that one right before the end of the period to go up two was huge, and from there we kept on rolling and they couldn’t really keep up.”
Early in the second period, Barrow capped a rush to the net with a rising backhander that made it 3-0 and chased Hrenak from the nets after stopping just 7-of-10 shots. He was replaced by Jeff Smith, who made 13 saves in relief.
Montgomery seemed most pleased with the diversity of his team’s offense, with three of the four goals coming from the third and fourth lines.
“The Olischefski-Barrow line has really been building here for two months. You can just see their confidence growing,” he said of two emerging rookies.
The Huskies ruined Jaillet’s bid for his sixth shutout of the season with 4:06 to play when freshman Kevin Fitzgerald hammered home a loose puck with a crowd in front of the Denver net. But the Huskies’ momentum was short-lived; Gambrell scored unassisted just 72 seconds later.
The Pioneers last won this tournament in 2014, at the conclusion of the NCHC’s first season. They are hoping to make their third consecutive trip to the NCAA’s Frozen Four, which will be played in St. Paul in three weeks.