March 23, 2008 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Overdue: Denver's WCHA Title Particularly Sweet

Pioneers Persevere to Win 15th Conference Tournament Championship

by Dane DeKrey/Staff Writer

ST. PAUL, Minn. — It was one of those moments you've heard about but never actually seen — George Gwozdecky speechless.

Amidst a backdrop that included his team winning its 15th Broadmoor Cup by beating Minnesota 2-1, two of his players — defenseman Chris Butler and goaltender Peter Mannino — earned all-tournament honors, and what appears to be a sure No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Denver head coach, who is usually known for his candidness, sat silent for nearly 10 seconds.

Count that out — it feels like an eternity.

When he finally spoke, Gwozdecky touched not on his team's performance, which was nothing but superb all weekend, but rather on the performance of his opponent, Minnesota.

"What the University of Minnesota hockey team and their coaching staff has done, especially in the second half of the year and especially in the last two weeks, literally has been inspiring," Gwozdecky said. "You talk about a great story to inspire a down-and-out team."

Given the trials and tribulations surrounding the Pioneers in the second half of the year, if you weren't listening closely, you might have thought Gwozdecky to be talking about his own team.

It was just a few months ago, after all, that Denver was rocked not once but twice when first it lost then-leading scorer Brock Trotter to the NHL and then, just two games later, assistant captain Tyler Ruegsegger to injury.

To put the effect of Trotter's departure into perspective, it took now-leading scorer Tyler Bozak 13 games to overtake Trotter for the team lead.

Despite all this, at the end of Saturday night's championship game, it was Denver who spilled over the boards as the final seconds clicked off the clock. Led by yet another one-goal allowed performance by goaltender Peter Mannino, who gave up just five goals in five games to Minnesota on the season, Denver propelled itself to victory in front of a hostile crowd thanks to tallies from Tyler Bozak and Edina, Minn.-native, Tom May.

"Peter certainly has had our number so far this year," Lucia said. "Congratulations to Denver; they played outstanding all weekend and they earned the win. They were the better team tonight."

When asked what sparked his team's late season success, Gwozdecky harkened back to late January.

"I think a number of our players were trying to fill the roles of the departed goal scorers or goal scorers who were injured," Gwozdecky said, in obvious reference to Trotter and Ruegsegger. "A role that was good for them all of a sudden they decided that they were going to change their role; that took a little bit of a chore to get back to everybody doing what they did well and you know, we've come around and started to play better and obviously this was a real good boost for us and our confidence."

All that Gwozdecky can hope for now is for his team to avoid a recent trend in the WCHA in which the team that wins the Broadmoor Cup fails to use it as a launching pad for a run to the NCAA national championship. The past two years, for example, North Dakota and Minnesota have seen their hopes at a national championship dashed just weeks after raising the WCHA's top postseason honor.

But that sort of curse doesn't seem to faze Gwozdecky. In fact, it's just the opposite.

When asked whether a Final Five championship translates into his team being a favorite to win the NCAA national championship, Gwozdecky laughed out loud — literally.

"Yeah right," said Gwozdecky, once his laughter subsided. "For us to be able to go into the national tournament off of two wins is very important. The confidence that it creates and the emotions that it creates is important."

With all that has happened to Gwozdecky and Denver throughout the WCHA season, it's almost poetic justice for his team to end its WCHA season on top.

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