Last Men Standing
Denver Outlasts Miami for First NCHC Championship, NCAA Bid
by Phil Ervin/CHN Reporter
MINNEAPOLIS Even in the final moments of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference's first-ever go-round, the fledgling league's last two members standing exhibited its tightness.
Not until goalie Sam Brittain and Denver's stout defense turned away a flurry of last-second Miami shots could the Pioneers claim the league's inaugural Frozen Faceoff championship. Few other conclusions could've spoken as well to a conference season that ended with a six seed and eight seed squaring off for the NCHC's large, silver goblet while powers St. Cloud State and North Dakota watched from or traveled home.
RedHawks left wing Blake Coleman smacked away at the puck in front of Brittain with the same opportunism that lifted last-place Miami to a sweep of Penrose Cup winner St. Cloud in the tournament's first round and a shutout of North Dakota in Friday's semifinals. Denver responded with the same grit it showed in rallying to knock off Nebraska-Omaha on the road and eventually reach its seventh consecutive NCAA tournament by the slimmest of margins.
"We weren't letting that victory slip out of our hands," said left winger Zac Larraza, who along with Nolan Zajac tallied a goal and an assist in Saturday's title-clinching win.
Denver didn't, capping its come-from-behind conference tourney run with a second straight 4-3 win — this one against the RedHawks, who were picked to cruise through the NCHC but instead labored to a doormat regular-season finish. The Pioneers (20-15-6) captured their first league title since 2008, extended their NCAA-best 20-win-season streak to 13 and are expected to receive the tournament's 15th overall seed and head to the Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass., where they'll take on Boston College in the first round.
That's after Denver dropped eight of its final 12 regular-season contests claimed third-to-last in the conference.
"I think with how competitive our league was, it was difficult to gauge the fact that we finished sixth and say we had a bad year," said Brittain, who stopped 23 shots. "I don't think that's the case. You look at Miami upsetting St. Cloud; to the outside, it looked like an upset, but everyone in the conference knew that it wasn't really an upset because of how good the league is top-to-bottom.
"Six versus eight in the final. Who would've thought that, right?"
As the NCHC's top netminder pointed out, seeding and perception meant little when it came down to the first chapter in this eight-team conference's storybook. Miami (15-20-3) went from first to worst and nearly back again, knocking off the league's top two regular-season finishers in succession to earn Saturday's matchup with Denver.
The Pioneers' schedule became a quintessential example of parity; they split all but two series against NCHC opponents all season.
And even when Denver's postseason ascension seemed finalized, it wasn't.
Tournament MVP Daniel Doremus' second goal in as many days gave the Pioneers a commanding 2-0 lead in the first. But Miami shot back with markers from Anthony Louis and Sean Kuraly in the second.
Larraza and Emil Romig scored within five minutes of each other to re-extend the lead to two, and any RedHawks momentum appeared sapped.
But Louis capitalized when Pioneers defenseman Josiah Didier couldn't clear his own zone, scoring from the right slot with 1:33 to go and giving Miami one last glimmer of hope.
Brittain snuffed it out with a glove save against Riley Barber with about 40 seconds left. Coleman had two chances in front of the net inside the final 10 seconds but couldn't get a shot through to Brittain.
"Obviously, we weren't gonna quit," Miami coach Enrico Blasi said.
But Blasi and the youngsters in his charge could only stand at the Target Center blue line and watch as NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton handed off the Frozen Faceoff trophy to Doremus and the rest of Denver's captains. As the RedHawks looked on, they were saddled with the burden of becoming the first Miami team to miss the NCAA tournament since 2005.
They'd just come within inches of recovering from a 3-13-1 start.
"You can't finish last in the league and try to make a run at the end," Blasi said. "We needed that kind of consistency in January and February, and we didn't have it."
But there's positivity concerning what's to come, Blasi contends. Only one senior suited up for the RedHawks on Saturday night.
"I think we have something to work with," Blasi said. "I saw some things that our team is capable of doing. Obviously, we're capable of playing with anybody.
"Anybody in this league is."
It's that notion that has Fenton, conference athletic directors and coaches thinking this conference can be one of the land's toughest moving forward. Founded in 2011 as part of college hockey's Penn State-precipitated alignment overhaul, the NCHC will send three teams — St. Cloud State, UND and Denver — to the NCAAs, which begin next week.
And when a league's bottom teams beat up on its proven top ones, it becomes easier to sell competitiveness.
"I think it speaks to the parity in college hockey as a whole," Fenton said in an interview with College Hockey News. "I think it certainly speaks to the parity in this conference. One of the things that we talked about in the formation of the conference was exciting hockey games night in and night out. I think the fans, for the most part, throughout the course of the season, saw that."
Said Montgomery: "It's the SEC of (college hockey)."
The first of five NCHC tournaments concluded in Minneapolis having suffered a few glitches.
The ice was soft. The stands weren't full. But conference commissioner Josh Fenton said, all in all, he was pleased with the way the league's inaugural season came to an end.
"We've been happy with it," Fenton said after Saturday's third-place game between North Dakota and Western Michigan. "We've had four good teams, three very competitive games to this point, a lot of engaging activities for our fans, and I've thought that it's gone very well to this point — certainly with a lot to improve in the future, but excited with our first start."
Necessary upgrades include better ice — the Target Center sheet wasn't inserted until late Wednesday night and remained softer than desired throughout the weekend — and, of course, increased attendance.
A lack of Minnesota teams in the semifinals certainly hurt the head count. But North Dakota's fans traveled well to put the two-day attendance mark at 17,252.
Fenton, who took over as commissioner in July 2013, also said he, conference and school officials may discuss a different tournament format, perhaps one that brings more than four teams to the Twin Cities.
"I think of different playoff models and different playoff scenarios probably every day, whether it's the current setup that we have with the four campus sites to the four here, versus maybe a couple campus sites and bring six teams here to all eight teams here," Fenton said. "That's something that we'll discuss at the end of the year when we have a little bit more data that we can look back upon — financial data and input from the member institutions — to see what makes the most sense for our conference, and then we'll make decisions that are in the best interest of the conference."