1 vs. 2 All Year Long
Denver, Minnesota-Duluth Championship Game Preview
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CHICAGO This is how it had to be.
All season long, there's been Denver.
There's been Minnesota-Duluth.
And then there's been everyone else.
Fifty-eight other teams divided into however many tiers you want. None measured up to the top-seeded Pioneers and second-seeded Bulldogs. Some looked the part at different points. Boston University featured a roster full of NHL prospects. Harvard went 18 games without a loss before falling to Duluth. North Dakota didn't have to leave its state to get to the Frozen Four. Massachusetts-Lowell played its entire postseason in front of home crowds. They're all gone now.
"This year, we've been switching the No. 1 and No. 2 spot basically all year long," DU senior Emil Roming said. "There's a lot of respect, but we're all here to come out on top."
Thursday night, both Denver and Duluth advanced through their national semifinals. The wins came in different fashions. The Bulldogs scratched out a 2-1 win over Harvard, scoring with 26 seconds left in regulation and getting some help from a crossbar and a couple posts in a frantic final minute. Denver, meanwhile, destroyed Notre Dame, winning a 6-1 game that somehow wasn't even that close.
So we ended up with the matchup most people foresaw the last time these two clubs played. On Dec. 9 and 10, UMD travelled to Magness Arena in the Mile High City. The teams played 120 back-and-forth minutes. Denver won Friday. Duluth won Saturday.
"The games we played in Denver were two very good games," UMD senior Willie Raskob said. "4-3, 3-1, I think that's going to be the type of game it's going to be. We're a good skating team. They're a good skating team. I think it will be a fun game."
"The split kind of made it even more of a rivalry coming into this game," DU sophomore Colin Staub said. "We're really excited to be able to see who comes out on top."
They raced to the finish line in the NCHC regular season, with a rough UMD stretch to start the second half giving the Pioneers a lead they never relinquished. In the NCHC playoffs, Denver faltered before what seemed like a certain matchup for the league's tournament title on Championship Saturday. DU fell, 1-0, to North Dakota, and Duluth took advantage in claiming the league's playoff championship.
The third possible meeting between the nation's best teams didn't materialize. There was one more chance for the rubber match.
Seeded first and second to start the NCAA tournament, the teams once again looked certain to meet.
Duluth needed a pair of overtime winners in its Regional wins over Ohio State and Boston University, as well as Alex Iafallo's last-minute tally Thursday night. It's looked much different for the Pioneers. DU's won each of its games by at least three goals, dismantling Michigan Tech and Penn State on its way to the Frozen Four.
Their meeting will be the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 national title game in the 16-team era, which dates back to 2003. Overall, it's the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 since 1993 — when DU coach Jim Montgomery scored a third-period hat trick to lift his Maine team over Lake Superior State. It's the third time in the last five years, a national title game featured teams from the same conference. So how to describe the rivalry?
"Fiercely respectful," Montgomery said.
Both teams' seasons began with equal parts frustration and progress. DU lost a pair of games in the IceBreaker, which it hosted, to Ohio State and Boston College before sweeping Boston University in a pair of games at Magness Arena. UMD swept Michigan Tech to open the season before playing to a pair of ties during a two-game trip to UMass-Lowell's Tsongas Center.
Since, UMD has won 26 of its 37 games. Denver has won 30 of its 39 games. The teams both rank in the top 10 nationally in goals per game, goals against per game, total scoring and total scoring defense. DU has an edge in each category. The differences are neglible. These are the most complete, most accomplished teams in the country.
The Pioneers' overall record and performance gives them a slight edge. UMD isn't concerned. Both teams have demonstrated time and again that they're worthy of playing for a championship and winning the whole damn thing. Even if it means going through the team considered to be their toughest challenge.
"The games we had there, I think you can gain something from them," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "But it's one game. And all you're asking your players to do is go out there and play their best game. ... One team's going to probably play a little bit better or maybe it's a bounce or a break. That's what's going to decide the game."
Last time they met, they split a pair of games. DU was without Henrik Borgstrom. UMD was without Avery Peterson.
Saturday night. The United Center. Chicago. Game 3.
There will be Denver.
There will be Minnesota-Duluth.
And there won't be anyone else.