Same as Ever, Same as Always
Consistent Approach Defines Denver
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CHICAGO It happens sometimes.
A puck hits a stick or glances off a skate. A defenseman hits an edge. All of a sudden, a two-goal lead is gone. A season-long march to a national championship hits another roadblock.
Other times, a team just isn't right. They go on a run — six, seven, 10 games without a loss and then they put out a stinker. A bad effort. The shots don't fall. The breaks go the other way. And the other guys just run the show for 60 whole minutes.
Denver knows both of those situations well. And they navigate any and every hurdle with the same focus and commitment they use when they're closing out the easiest of wins.
"If we do the right things, we don't have to worry about the results," Denver captain Will Butcher said. "When we play Denver hockey, the results will fall in our favor. It's about sticking to our process."
Butcher sounded like an echo. Of his coach, specifically.
"We know what we have to do win hockey games," DU coach Jim Montgomery said. "We're consistent in our approach. We're consistent in our play. We know what gives us success. By the end of the year, we're not changing the way we play to finish games."
Denver heads into Thursday's national semifinal with Notre Dame 11 days removed from a game that, from the outside, appeared like a major test. DU defeated Penn State, 6-3, to advance to the Frozen Four for the second straight year and the 16th time overall.
Leading Penn State, 2-0, after just 7:19 of their regional final, the Pioneers saw the lead evaporate completely. The Nittany Lions struck down a man to make it, 2-1, and added another early in the second period. The Pioneers could've worried, quickly reliving the momentary lapse that saw last season end so suddenly.
"What happened last year definitely still burns, but we were able to get back here because of what (Montgomery) instills in us every day," DU senior Matt Marcinew said. "He expects so much of us that we come to expect the same from each other. Nothing changes no matter what the score is."
The Pioneers recovered and controlled the remainder of the game against Penn State. They cruised to a 6-3 win. Even a 5-minute major on defenseman Tariq Hammond just 26 seconds into the third period couldn't derail the Pioneers. PSU would strike once midway through the third period, but the Nittany Lions wouldn't get any closer.
DU played its game. The score didn't matter. Neither did the stakes.
"Teams take on the characteristics of their leaders," Butcher said. "(Montgomery's) our leader back there. He prepares us. He gets us going. He's a great motivator. We're always focused and ready to go because that's how he is."
There are lapses, of course. For DU, the biggest mishap came at a good time.
"North Dakota. NCHC semifinal," Montgomery said. "We got pushed around. We didn't answer back. We had been winning. We hadn't been playing that kind of tough, hard checking game for a long while. Losing that game really put us back on track."
The Pioneers entered Championship Weekend with a 13-game winning streak before the loss to North Dakota. However, all of their wins came against the botton four teams in the NCHC. North Dakota won the game, 1-0.
"(North Dakota) played a good game," DU goaltender Tanner Jaillet said. "They took it to us a little bit. We hadn't played a really good team in a while. It was nice to see how intense it was. They played really well. It was a good reminder of how hard it is."
Each of these situations is analogous to those Montgomery experienced in his days playing for Maine on national title contenders in the early 1990s. A lengthy and turbulent career in pro hockey taught him just as much. He draws from his experience in leading his team. His philosophy forces his players to move forward from mistakes and focus solely on what's to come. A bad shift. A bad bounce. A bad game. None of it matters. Just keeping moving forward, because losing, as he sees it, isn't a possibility, especially for DU's current senior class. A group of players in the same situation Montgomery was in 24 years ago as a senior at Maine. A year removed from a heartbreaking NCAA tournament loss. Montgomery's group needs just one more trophy to complete the set.
"I don't talk about leaving unfulfilled. I talk about the fulfillment of winning a national championship," he said. "Your mindset has to be focused at all times on positive thoughts and be fearful of losing. You've got to be fearful of losing all the time. If you are, you're going to play with incredible urgency which leads to positive results."
Against North Dakota in Minneapolis, the Pioneers knew their NCAA tournament status was solidified. They weren't scared of losing because there was no penalty, ultimately, for doing so.
Thursday night, the bad bounces will come a couple times. Not every shift will follow the script. The Pioneers won't change, though. Not now. Not after winning an NCHC regular-season title, advancing through a regional and standing now just two games from a national championship.
DU approaches the game the same way now it did in October. It's the Frozen Four. Why change now?