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CHICAGO — For the eighth time in program history and the first time since 2005, Denver captured the national championship.
But boy, was it difficult.
[scg_html_ff2017]Jarid Lukosevicius scored all three Denver goals in a span of 7 minutes, 39 seconds in the second period, and the Pioneers then held on for dear life after Minnesota Duluth closed to within a goal in the third.
In the end, multiple saves by goaltender Tanner Jaillet, including a right arm stop on Riley Tufte with seconds remaining, was enough for the Pioneers to earn the 3-2 victory on Saturday and raise the national championship trophy.
“It’s an incredible moment,” said Denver coach Jim Montgomery. “Being part of this, to lead this group as a head coach, it’s a sense of pride.”
Tufte was the man who gave the Bulldogs a chance, poking home a rebound of Avery Peterson’s shot off the post with 5:21 remaining in regulation.
From that moment on, Denver seemed like it was trying to drink water from a fire hose, constantly peppered with shots. Minnesota Duluth held a 17-3 shot edge in the third and a 40-28 advantage in the game.
But Jaillet, one night after winning the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s best goaltender, proved more than worthy of the recognition.
“Thank god we have the Richter Award winner and everybody knows why he won,” Montgomery said of his goaltender, who made 38 saves. “He was incredible in the third period. His confidence and his poise and how secure he was in controlling rebounds gave us the confidence we were going to be able to prevail.”
While the ending was all Bulldogs, it didn’t begin that way.
Minnesota Duluth had to withstand an early onslaught as Denver posted the first nine shots of the game. But with goaltender Hunter Miska (25 saves) standing tall and the team bending, not breaking, the Bulldogs closed the shot deficit to 13-10 by the end of the scoreless opening frame.
Denver opened the second period similar to the first but this time got on the board.
It began at 4:44 as Lukosevicius redirected Michael Davies’ shot from the point. Sixteen seconds later, he potted another, this time finishing off a play after Troy Terry seemingly deked the entire Duluth defense.
The two goals in 16 seconds were the fastest ever by one player in a national title game.
After Alex Iafallo drew the Bulldogs within a goal on the power play at 7:16, Lukosevicius completed the hat trick at 12:23, burying a rebound to spot the Pioneers a two-goal lead heading to the third.
The hat trick was the first in a national title game since Montgomery did it as a player with Maine in 1993.
“He buried them,” said Montgomery of Lukosevicius. “People may say he just had an empty net, but he was in the area where it’s tough to score goals.”
A key play in the third period was an extensive stoppage with 16:50 remaining when Denver’s Tariq Hammond was seriously injured with an apparent broken ankle.
From that point on, the Bulldogs held a 16-2 shot advantage. And once Tufte pulled Duluth within a goal with 5:21 left, the thought of a comeback didn’t just seem realistic, it almost felt inevitable.
“I thought our guys went out there and played as well as we could,” said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin. “The effort, I mean, we went after it. Maybe we ran out of puck luck. I don’t know. But we did what we had to do and I couldn’t be more proud of these guys to battle right to the end.”
The title was Denver’s eighth, moving it into a tie for second with last year’s champion, North Dakota. Each is one behind Michigan, which has a record nine championships.
“It’s just a special bond when you’re part of a [national championship team],” said Montgomery, who harkened back to his days as a player when he won the national title with Maine. “These young men I know will be friends for life and they’ll be proud Pioneers for the rest of their life.”