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North Dakota at Denver, 2-12-16 (Candace Horgan)
Sophomore Troy Terry is part of a potent offensive attack for No. 1 Denver (photo: Candace Horgan).

CINCINNATI — Jim Montgomery had to mull it over a moment.

The Denver coach had just won his 100th game with the program, sending his squad to a second-consecutive Frozen Four.

But what was different this time?

“Last year, I was on cloud nine,” Montgomery began to explain. “Our team didn’t come down from cloud nine until Saturday last year of the Frozen Four. Right now? I’m not on cloud nine.”

Denver’s 2017 Midwest Regional games bore a striking resemblance to its run the prior season in the West — a couple of offensive showings paired with sound defensive play paved the way last year, which was replicated this past weekend in Cincinnati during a set of 5-2 and 6-3 victories over Michigan Tech and Penn State, respectively. The latter win — which shared the final score of its 2016 iteration — was sealed by holding the Nittany Lions to a season-low 27 shots just one night removed from their 10-3 dismantling of Union.

“Going into the game, we knew they had a high-flying offense and they were capable,” sophomore forward Troy Terry, who registered five points in the final, said of his Penn State opposition. “We just believed in our team and stuck to what’s given us success all year and it worked.”

“In this tournament, you can get bounces and things can go wrong right from the start,” senior captain Will Butcher added. “You’ve got to play well for all 60 minutes of the game. It didn’t faze our guys too much. We’ve got a resilient group.”

Resiliency is a fitting trait for these top-seeded Pioneers. One of those aforementioned bad bounces lead to a Nick Schmaltz goal in the final minute of last year’s semifinal — and an empty-netter to kill any hope of a buzzer-beater — that sent the Pioneers packing.

But like Montgomery explained, this isn’t the same team, physically or mentally, that relished to opportunity to play in Tampa Bay.

A hard-nosed blue line and back-end first philosophy has rewarded this year’s Pioneers with the best defense in the country at 1.83 goals against per game. Tanner Jaillet has been stellar between the pipes when called upon, too — his .928 save percentage ranks ninth among collegiate goaltenders.

The other end of the ice has been nearly as impressive. At 3.40 goals per game, Denver’s offense is tied with NCHC rival and fellow Frozen Four contestant Minnesota Duluth for eighth-best in the nation.

Freshman Henrik Borgström leads the charge with 42 points, and along with Terry and sophomore Dylan Gambrell, has averaged north of a point per game. Borgström, the 23rd overall selection by the Florida Panthers in last summer’s NHL Draft, has added yet another dimension to Denver depth chart and has helped his linemates to continue unlocking their potentials, as well as his own.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is not to watch him, but to get up in the play and be ready all the time,” Terry said of his first-year forward partner. “He makes really creative plays and you have to be ready.”

For his part, Butcher has chipped in with 36 points of his own in a season that’s seen him honored as a Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalist. Point to any name, really, on that Denver roster, and you’ll find a player that performed when he needed to this season.

Now, as a team improved on all fronts, the pressure is on the Pioneers to blaze a trail to the team’s first championship game since 2005. They face an upstart Notre Dame squad in the semifinal, a team that upset No. 4 Minnesota and stunned a formidable UMass Lowell team en route to Chicago.

But this isn’t a group that seems starstruck at the opportunity to battle it out for the eighth national title in school history. The Pioneers aren’t on cloud nine. They’ve tasted the Frozen Four and anything less than a championship won’t cut it. The players know it. And so does Montgomery, whose words following Sunday’s game summed up his team’s situation rather well.

“The experience of having been there, you’re just hungrier to go further and finish it off,” said Montgomery

  • A Shot and a Goal

    I’ll say it again: I hope the Pioneers win the title this year because next year’s squad may look vastly different. Seniors graduating from this year’s team are: Will Butcher, Matt VanVoorhis, Evan Ritt, Emil Romig, Matt Marcinew, Evan Janssen, Brad Hawkinson, Greg Ogard and Evan Cowley.

    Additional roster attrition could hit the Pioneers in any combination of the following players leaving for a professional career: Henrik Borgstrom [Florida], Dylan Gambrell [San Jose], Troy Terry [Anaheim], Blake Hillman [Chicago].

    Furthermore, senior-to-be, free agent, goalie Tanner Jaillet, may never be in a more advantageous position than at present to sign with an NHL franchise. I happen to think junior-to-be, Jarrid Lukosevicius–also a free agent–is another player who may be tempted by the lure of a professional hockey career.

    In all Denver will graduate nine seniors. There are four non-senior-class players all of whom have been drafted who could bid the Pioneers good-bye after next week. Add to this two attractive free agents and it’s easy to see why next season’s Pioneers’ roster could look substantially different from the roster which will play in Chicago next week. Nine seniors will be graduating and some combination of as many as another six players could be leaving as well. That’s fifteen players from a roster of twenty-seven.

    Denver is well-advised to win the title next week. Go Pios!

    • Sparky

      There is no question DU will lose some underclassmen after this year. I thought Borgstrom would be a one and done….after watching his last two games I no longer see this happening. Hillman is a better defenseman than most ppl realize. He is fast, moves the puck well, and is smart on the ice. He could go, but I see him sticking around one more year. All the other underclassmen on your list are definitely candidates to leave early…as you stated.

  • A Shot and a Goal

    I’ll say it again: I hope the Pioneers win the title this year because next year’s squad may look vastly different. Seniors graduating from this year’s team are: Will Butcher, Matt VanVoorhis, Evan Ritt, Emil Romig, Matt Marcinew, Evan Janssen, Brad Hawkinson, Greg Ogard and Evan Cowley.

    Additional roster attrition could hit the Pioneers in any combination of the following players leaving for a professional career: Henrik Borgstrom [Florida], Dylan Gambrell [San Jose], Troy Terry [Anaheim], Blake Hillman [Chicago].

    Furthermore, senior-to-be, free agent, goalie Tanner Jaillet, may never be in a more advantageous position than at present to sign with an NHL franchise. I happen to think junior-to-be, Jarrid Lukosevicius–also a free agent–is another player who may be tempted by the lure of a professional hockey career.

    In all Denver will graduate nine seniors. There are four non-senior-class players all of whom have been drafted who could bid the Pioneers good-bye after next week. Add to this two attractive free agents and it’s easy to see why next season’s Pioneers’ roster could look substantially different from the roster which will play in Chicago next week. Nine seniors will be graduating and some combination of as many as another six players could be leaving as well. That’s fifteen players from a roster of twenty-seven.

    Denver is well-advised to win the title next week. Go Pios!

    • Sparky

      There is no question DU will lose some underclassmen after this year. I thought Borgstrom would be a one and done….after watching his last two games I no longer see this happening. Hillman is a better defenseman than most ppl realize. He is fast, moves the puck well, and is smart on the ice. He could go, but I see him sticking around one more year. All the other underclassmen on your list are definitely candidates to leave early…as you stated.

  • Bob Neal

    Montgomery to his Alma mater, Maine?? That would be stupid as Maine will never be the team they were in the 90’s. As a Lowell fan I hope he stays in Denver. They have a great program. Maybe next year is lean, but expect them to reload. A pretty impressive team in a great hockey league. I hope the city of Denver knows what they have there. I see them easily taking out Notre Dame. I could be wrong as you still have to play the game.

    • Blueline892910

      Montgomery signed a Extension this season and for going to Maine it would be a WELCOMED sight but will never happen as Maine dropped the ball before and after they fired Tim Whitehead…they could have had Montgomery had they fired Whitehead right after the season and put aside there wannabe Political AD ABBOTT intentions to never have Montgomery as a Coach for Maine…where they got beat was they didn’t have a plan in place to talk to perspective Coaches and Denver swooped in during the Frozen 4 in Pittsburgh and gave Montgomery a super chance of being a Div.1 Head Coach with a Program willing to pay and make the Program his to direct. Denver was on the Ball while Maine has fallen off the College Hockey Charts. Maine is a disaster and will be as long as there present AD (Creech) and Head Coach (Gendron) are in charge. A once solid Program got down the DRAIN.

  • Bob Neal

    Montgomery to his Alma mater, Maine?? That would be stupid as Maine will never be the team they were in the 90’s. As a Lowell fan I hope he stays in Denver. They have a great program. Maybe next year is lean, but expect them to reload. A pretty impressive team in a great hockey league. I hope the city of Denver knows what they have there. I see them easily taking out Notre Dame. I could be wrong as you still have to play the game.

    • Blueline892910

      Montgomery signed a Extension this season and for going to Maine it would be a WELCOMED sight but will never happen as Maine dropped the ball before and after they fired Tim Whitehead…they could have had Montgomery had they fired Whitehead right after the season and put aside there wannabe Political AD ABBOTT intentions to never have Montgomery as a Coach for Maine…where they got beat was they didn’t have a plan in place to talk to perspective Coaches and Denver swooped in during the Frozen 4 in Pittsburgh and gave Montgomery a super chance of being a Div.1 Head Coach with a Program willing to pay and make the Program his to direct. Denver was on the Ball while Maine has fallen off the College Hockey Charts. Maine is a disaster and will be as long as there present AD (Creech) and Head Coach (Gendron) are in charge. A once solid Program got down the DRAIN.