BOSTON — Through more than half the game, the Denver Pioneers had no answer for Minnesota State. But with 20 minutes in their season, the Pioneers erased a one-goal deficit and stormed on to defeat Minnesota State, 5-1, to win the program's ninth national championship and its first since 2017.
"Words don't describe the feelings," said Denver coach David Carle. "I'm so proud of our team and what they were able to accomplish this year. It means the world to our staff and our players to be a part of this journey with these guys. It was just so much fun. They committed to each other every day to get better. It was not easy, but they continued to stick with it. ... They just worked all year, believed in each other all year, and we faced our biggest test tonight."
The nine national titles ties the Pioneers with Michigan for the most all-time.
"The ultimate goal is to be the first one to 10," Carle said.
It certainly wasn't a wire-to-wire victory for the Pioneers, who had to find a way to combat the challenges the Mavericks presented.
At the 12:23 mark of the first period, Denver took its first penalty of the weekend when Mike Benning was called for tripping. On the ensuing power play, the Mavericks found the back of the net. A shot from Brendan Furry was blocked in the slot but Lucas Sowder moved the back on his backhand over to Sam Morton who sniped the puck past Magnus Chrona.
Just 90 seconds after the Mavericks took the lead, star winger Nathan Smith was called for roughing and Denver went on the power play. That was Minnesota State's first penalty of the weekend as well, but the Mavericks clamped down on the penalty kill and only allowed one shot to reach Dryden McKay's net, which he stopped.
As soon as the penalty to Smith expired, Minnesota went back to work and pinned Denver deep with a sustained offensive possession that included two Grade-A scoring chances.
Minnesota State led 1-0 at the end of the first period and had an 8-3 edge in shots on goal.
The Mavericks' possession game continued to dominate in the early minutes of the second period. The Mavericks opened up the second period with a 4-0 shot edge and had a 12-3 advantage until the 4:30 mark of the second.
Almost midway through the second period, the Pioneers had another chance on the power play when the Mavericks were called for too many men on the ice. David Silye had a chance to extend the lead on a shorthanded breakaway chance that was stopped by Chrona. Denver did not record a shot on the power play.
Halfway through the game, Denver had just four shots on goal and Minnesota State still led 1-0.
"They do a great job jamming you up in the neutral zone," said Denver senior Ryan Barrow. "What we talked about in the second intermission was just coming towards pucks. You don'twant to leave a linemate on the island there. Once we started supporting pucks we started opening our mouths and talking. I think, maybe on a big stage, you get a little timid and you're not really talking. Once we started helping each other out there I think it made a huge difference."
Added Carle, "All that matters is the scoreboard. We were always one shot away from it."
The Pioneers began to chip away and generate some chances late in the second, but at the end of the period, the Mavericks had an 18-8 edge and had that same 1-0 lead.
Early in the third period, a turnover during a line change led to a 3-on-2 for the Mavericks — another chance to extend the lead — but Chrona made the stop with his left pad.
Then the tide changed.
Five minutes into the third period Jack Devine dumped a puck into the corner and Mike Benning was able to one-time it from the circle. Ryan Barrow got a piece of it in front of Dryden McKay and the game was tied.
"It was just more reinforcing the game plan rather than focusing on the scoreboard," Carle said. "We felt if we could get to doing what we do, we would give ourselves a chance. Magnus made save after save there in big moments."
The game continued to spiral for the Mavericks when Sam Morton was called for a tripping penalty just 45 seconds after the goal which put Denver on the power play, fresh off tying the game. Minnesota State killed the penalty, but just as Morton was stepping back onto the ice Benning ripped a slap shot from the left circle that beat McKay to the blocker side.
"We had done a decent job at getting that killed up until last 10 seconds of the power play," Mike Hastings said. "Then I think it's a spot we hadn't been in in a while, and I didn't think we managed it very well. They smelled some blood in the water and they were incredibly aggressive and they were awarded for that."
Exactly one minute after that, it appeared that the Pioneers took a 3-1 lead but the goal was waved off.
From there, Minnesota State never recaptured the momentum. WIth 6:26 left on the clock, Carter Mazur fed Massimo Rizzo on a 2-on-1 that beat McKay, who was sprawling from his right side to his left, which extend the Denver lead to 3-1.
"This was a perfect example of understanding that a minimum of 60 minutes at this time of year is going to be something that you need to have," Hastings said. " I thought we had a good 40 and not a great last 20."
With three minutes left and McKay pulled for an extra attacker, Akito Hirose sent in a wrist shot off a faceoff that got deflected past Chrona but barely slipped wide of the left post. About 30 seconds later, Brett Stapley picked off a breakout pass from Jake Livingstone and fired the puck into the empty net to seal Denver's national title. For good measure, Denver added one more empty-netter a few moments later.
"We have four (national championships) now since the turn of the century, I think that's the most out of anybody," Carle said. "We've done it with three different head coaches, that's very impressive in my opinion. You come here to try to win championships. It's not easy to play at Denver. We challenge recruits when they come on campus. We challenge our players. We hold them accountable. It's a big responsibility to play in our program and ultimately it takes people who are team first and they want to be part of something bigger than themselves."