Denver On Much Sturdier Ground
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
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WORCESTER, Mass. Denver’s loss in the opening round of last year’s NCAA tournament to New Hampshire was treated as doomsday by the higher-ups, resulting in long-time head coach George Gwozdecky – the man who led the Pioneers to two national titles – getting fired with one year remaining on his contract.
This spring won’t be as eventful.
The Pioneers bowed out of the NCAA tournament after falling, 6-2, to Boston College on Saturday afternoon; the sixth time Denver has suffered an early exit in the last seven seasons. Despite the lopsided score, the Pioneer program is on much sturdier legs.
Instead of limping back to Denver, these Pioneers feel like their program has re-built its championship foundation.
Just last weekend, Denver won the inaugural NCHC tournament championship, earning its berth into this weekend’s regional.
“Last year obviously got crazy,” Denver junior captain Zac Larraza said. “We’ve taken a lot of steps this year. We have a great foundation and we won an NCHC title, so hopefully we can roll off that and bring it into next year.
"This year, going into this summer, we can look back on what it took to win that championship and the feeling of winning that championship and wanting to go even further. We put everything we had into that tournament and look at the result. We build that foundation.”
Denver finishes this season 20-16-6 under first-year head coach Jim Montgomery. Sam Brittain will graduate this spring as one of the best goalies in the nation over the past six months and freshman Evan Cowley (.944 save percentage in limited action), a Florida Panthers fourth-round pick, should seamlessly take over the crease this coming October.
The Pioneers are slated to return Trevor Moore, Daniel Doremus, Ty Loney, Gabe Levin and Quentin Shore; forwards who all scored at least 20 points this season.
Joey LaLeggia, a junior defenseman whose 12 goals from the blue line led the team, is likely headed to the Edmonton Oilers, the team that drafted him in 2012, but the Pioneers still should bring back four of the six defensemen who dressed in Saturday’s game as well as all 12 forwards.
That’s right, not a single forward in Denver’s lineup was a senior. In fact, only two players were: Brittain and defenseman David Makowski.
“Next year will be the most complete team we’ve had coming back since I’ve been here,” Larraza said. “My freshman year we had I think four guys sign, and then obviously our seniors graduated. It was almost half of our team. Last year, like I said, things got crazy at the start of the offseason and this year we only graduate two seniors.
"It’s going to hurt losing Brittain and Makowski but I think we just need to keep the focus on building that foundation that helped us establish this year.”
Like any season though, this year wasn’t without some adversity for the Pioneers.
After Denver lost Game 1 of its NCHC quarterfinal series to Nebraska-Omaha, they were faced do-or-die scenarios in four straight games, and they won them all, including a championship game last weekend against Miami.
“Our student-athletes overcame a lot,” Montgomery said. “George Gwozdecky is a great coach. They lost their mentor and for them to overcome that, regroup, and win a championship in a really tough conference – to me it was the second-best conference outside of Hockey East – for our players to win an NCHC championship is a tremendous feat. It’s building blocks for next year.”
Added Makowski, “I’m very proud of this team and I’m proud to be a Pioneer. I’m proud of everything we were able to accomplish this year, winning the NCHC championship is no easy feat. I’m proud of that and I’m proud of my teammates.”