The Perfect Ending
National Championship Game Lived Up to Billing
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CHICAGO It doesn't always happen like this.
Two great teams on the greatest of stages. The result isn't always worth remembering. There's a blowout or a slow game without any action. Teams get tight when they know there's no more practice left.
There's always that hope, though. The belief that something special might happen. That two great teams will play an even greater game, showing off every player and everything that makes them the best in the country.
Saturday night, Minnesota-Duluth and Denver performed for the rest of us. They battled back and forth, trading blows in the form of goals and extended stretches of dominance. They ratcheted up the excitement with every rush up the ice. They carried us through their quest for a championship from beginning to end. And the ride was every bit as special as championship games are supposed to be.
In the end, it was Denver raising the NCAA tournament trophy for the eighth time in program history. The Pioneers, led by a hat trick from Jarid Lukosevicius and 38 saves from goaltender Tanner Jaillet, defeated UMD, 3-2.
"I thought our guys went out there and played as well as they could," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "The effort, you saw the period. We went after it. Sometimes, maybe a little luck, maybe we ran out of puck luck. I don't know, but we did what we had to do and couldn't be more proud of our guys to battle right to the end. It's pretty much been their character all year."
The 60 minutes nearly weren't enough. About a dozen times as the clock wound down, the Bulldogs nearly drew level. The finish, ultimately, wasn't terribly strange. It was the build up, though, that made Saturday's performance so exhilarating.
The game truly had it all.
There were heroes on both sides with Lukosevicius scoring all three DU goals, and Alex Iafallo and Riley Tufte bringing UMD back. There was heartbreak on both sides just as well. The Bulldogs, of course, will never forget the chance that eluded their grasp in Saturday's loss. DU had to watch while one of their brothers, Tariq Hammond, was stretched off the ice with 16:50 left in the period.
"We know Duluth was a good team," Hammond said. "They've showed that all year. We knew it was going to be a tough game, and we just stuck to what we've been doing all year to make it successful. Nothing's changed. And Luko pulls a hat trick out, so I'm happy for him. Everyone played so well. It was just a great game."
Both of these programs have participated in truly unforgettable national championship games in years past. The 2011 Bulldogs team, led by Jack Connolly, Justin Fontaine and Mike Connolly, defeated Michigan in overtime to clinch the program's first championship. DU's 2004 title was clinched after the Pioneers successfully navigated a 6-on-3 after two players took penalties and Maine pulled its goalie for an extra attacker in the game's final moments.
For UMD, of course, Saturday's loss won't measure up to the victory in 2011. DU fans probably had a bit more confidence in the final moments on this year's game than they did 13 years ago with two players in the penalty box.
Saturday's game still satisfied the general hope for 60 minutes worthy of the two teams playing in the game. DU and UMD were clearly the two best teams in the country this season. And both of them played up to that reputation.
The Pioneers carried play in the early moments. UMD responded with a barrage of their own. In the second period, Lukosevicius and Jaillet helped DU take a 3-1 lead into the season's final 20 minutes. It all set up a delightful end, with UMD trying desperately to extend their season, and the Pioneers managing a lead brilliantly and surviving a scary moment or two with some skill and old-fashioned luck.
"In the third period, we did a pretty good job of spending time in their offensive zone," Sandelin said. "We just needed to be a little harder on pucks and a little stronger on the net. But I can't say anything. Our guys were awesome in the third, and we gave ourselves a chance to get back in the game."
"They're a great team," DU sophomore Troy Terry said. "I give them a ton of credit. We knew it was going to be that way. I'm so proud of how our guys stuck in there. Our guys were laying out to block shots, doing everything we could to get that win, and these guys deserve it. I'm so happy right now."
There have been more dramatic finishes. Underdog stories and season-long narratives that made a certain team one even neutrals could get behind.
"We won the regular season. They won the playoff, and we met in the (national) championship game," DU coach Jim Montgomery said. "It speaks volumes about our conference and about the two teams headed for the collision course in the final game."
Saturday night, two great hockey pieced together a masterful end to a season-long crescendo. Neither DU nor UMD will forget what happened at the United Center Saturday night. Because of their performances, neither will the rest of us.