Here’s To Denver Pioneers Their Long-Pending Honors

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The Denver Pioneers celebrate their 5-1 win over Minnesota State in Saturday’s NCAA Men’s Hockey National Championship game at TD Garden.

The University of Denver has a legitimate beef that is probably the most unsung superpower in the history of college hockey.

That should change after what happened at the men’s Frozen Four championship game on Saturday night at TD Garden.

The Pioneers’ surprise 5–1 victory over Minnesota State gave the program its ninth national championship, tying Michigan for the most in NCAA history. Four of their championships have been collected since 2004.

But for some reason, The Pioneers, despite their 17 Frozen Four appearances, are often not spoken of with the historical reverence of some of the other most decorated shows. If this is a case of so-called East Coast media bias, then there must be a Midwest bias too, as Denver Michigan has every program and receives half the praise.

The Pioneers are getting their due after what they achieved on Saturday night. They certainly deserve praise. Few previous championships have been achieved after facing so much difficulty in the championship game.

The Pioneers went 1-0 down in the third period, and the margin felt much bigger than that. Not that they couldn’t distinguish Minnesota State goalkeeper Dryden McKay, who won an NCAA-record 38 games this season, broke Michigan State legend Ryan Miller’s Division 1 record with 34 shutouts, and Friday in 2001 Became the first goalkeeper after Miller. Won the Hobby Baker Award as the nation’s top player.

It’s that they could barely get a shot at him. After two periods, the Pioneers had just eight shots on goal, and anything more than a second or two was nothing more than light scoring threats.

McKay, whose father Ross played his lone NHL game for the Hartford Whalers in 1990–91 and helped backstop the Springfield Falcons to the Calder Cup in the same season, was named after him. He Dryden, the great Canadian goalkeeper Ken Dryden. Fans here need not be reminded that the goalkeepers of that name have a history of winning big games in Greeley Tribune.

But just when it looked like Dryden would put McKay and Minnesota State defense veteran Sam Morton’s first-period goal in front of him, the Pioneers did the unthinkable: They plowed McKay. Then he solved it again. and then. Denver scored five goals in the final 15:14 of the game, including a pair of blank-netters, one of the more remarkable changes in pace you’ll ever see.

Minnesota State was circling Denver goalkeeper Marcus Croma (27 saves; not named after an NHL legend) and it seemed it was a matter of time before the Mavericks scored a second and potentially decisive goal.

Instead, Denver was summed up, and then it got control.

Ryan Barrow slipped through a rebound of defenseman Mike Benning’s shot near McKay at 15:14 of the final period, and it was a new game. Less than three minutes later, Benning ripped a one-timer from inside left point from the feed of fellow Blueliner Shai Baum, just as a power play ended, and suddenly the Pioneers had the lead.

At 13:34, Massimo Rizzo made Denver 3-1, on a 2-on-1 pass from Carter Mazur, and the Pioneers put it down with blank-netters from Brett Stapley and Cameron Wright.

It was a staggering end for Minnesota State, which won its 18th straight win over state rival Minnesota 5-1 in the semifinals on Thursday. And it became the biggest margin of victory for Denver in the entire NCAA Tournament. The Pioneers scored one-goal wins over UMass Lowell and Minnesota-Duluth in the regionals before their 3–2 win in overtime over Michigan in the semifinals.

Minnesota State, the artist formerly known as Mankato State, playing in their first championship game, was named as the home team, and agreed at the decibel level – Mavericks fans were in force. But there were few locals in attendance, as evidenced by familiar cheer when a certain recently retired Bruins goal dropped the ceremonial first puck: “TUUUUUUUKKA!”

Former Bruin David Bax, who played for Minnesota State from 2003–06, didn’t get the exact same obvious reaction when it was shown on the Garden video board.

But Denver fans heard himself in concert with his team in the third period, as did he. It was all so remarkable. When the stakes were highest and their chances were becoming slim with the shift, the Pioneers returned in the third period against one of the most statistically accomplished goalkeepers in college hockey history.

It’s not just Pioneers fans who should always be talking about this. Denver’s win is a quick and important piece of college hockey lore, a spectacular championship win for a program that, we must remember, is more than anything.

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