April 7, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Adaptation and Evolution

Gambrell, Denver Move Past Challenges Ahead of NCAA Final

by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer (@AvashKalra)

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CHICAGO — The Denver players and coaching staff have been asked about last season's NCAA Frozen Four semifinal loss to eventual champion North Dakota over and over.

And over and over again.

That loss has been a black cloud hovering  — perhaps fueling — each of Denver's accomplishments this season. The Pioneers' nation-best 32 wins. Their 13-game winning streak from Jan. 21 to Mar. 11. Their NCHC regular season title. And now their long-awaited return to the national championship game, an all-NCHC tilt between Denver and Minnesota-Duluth set for Saturday night.

Denver sophomore Dylan Gambrell has been asked about that loss, too.

But the memory is vivid without the constant reminders.

"It's always in the back of your mind — that feeling," Gambrell said before the final practice of Denver's season on Friday.

In reality, Gambrell has faced plenty of mental challenges over the past 12 months. Physical challenges, too.

A year ago, Gambrell was one-third of Denver's vaunted Pacific Rim line, which helped propel the Pioneers to last season's Frozen Four. Danton Heinen and Trevor Moore left during the offseason, leaving Gambrell — with his 17 goals and 30 assists as a freshman — as the potential focal point of the Pioneers' offense this season.

That was the burden he held before the puck even dropped on this 2016-17 season, long before Denver's dominant march to this year's title game.

But those plans seemingly changed during Denver's season-opening exhibition against Mount Royal on the first day of October. Gambrell suffered an upper body injury, tried to play the following weekend, but knew he had to be shut down for a time.

"He was our best player going into the year, and I'm talking about training camp," said head coach Jim Montgomery, the Spencer Penrose Award winner as the national coach of the year. "I'm not talking about just because of what he did last year. And then he got hurt in our exhibition game. He's a tough kid, a team player, played with three torn ligaments through the first weekend. Then we found out he needed to get surgery."

Gambrell missed only four games — much less than originally expected. His return sparked Denver's lineup, but the sophomore forward had to adjust his game immediately.

"People don't know this. He played with a cast," Montgomery said. "He couldn't handle passes. So he had to try and adapt his game. He's a great team guy. He's really grown this year. He is still a huge focal point for our team. We don't win if he's not going and he knows that. His pace and his relentlessness adds skill to our group that not a lot of players possess."

Entering last night's national semifinal with Notre Dame, Gambrell hadn't scored in eight games — the longest goalless streak of his career so far. He still averaged an assist per game during that stretch, though, playing a pivotal role alongside classmate Troy Terry on Denver's top line.

Against the Fighting Irish, Gambrell finally broke through, scoring two goals in the Pioneers' 6-1 win — the first on a heads-up wraparound play to put Denver up 4-0 and in cruise control late in the second period

"I didn't feel any pressure," said the San Jose Sharks prospect. "I felt that as long as I'm doing the right things with the puck, and helping my team in any way that I can and we're having success and other guys are scoring and everyone's contributing, it doesn't really matter who gets the credit. As long as we're scoring and winning games.

"Personally, I feel like I've rounded out my game a little more and really honed in on my defensive zone play — being on the right side of the puck and just doing the things away from the puck that are going to help the team."

Added Montgomery, "I didn't even know that he hadn't scored in eight games until you said that. That's how our team is built. We're built on the team having success. In my mind, he had been playing really well. He just hadn't scored. We did talk to him about getting into the tougher scoring areas inside the dots. We felt like he was getting a little too much from the outside. Last night, he went to tough areas."

Despite all the hurdles, Gambrell's 13 goals this season are still tied for third on the team, with Jarid Lukosevicius. Terry and freshman Henrik Borgstrom each have 22 goals to lead the team.

Borgstrom battled food poisoning the night before the NCAA tournament began. Terry dealt with almost unreasonably high expectations after willing Team USA to the gold medal in January at the World Junior Championships.

In each situation, the Denver players learned to adapt.

As a result, they've evolved — into a team that isn't defined by last year's Frozen Four loss, into a team that's balanced throughout the lineup, and yes, into the team to beat all tournament.

Now, there's one hurdle remaining. And that's the Saturday night showdown with Minnesota-Duluth, with the NCAA trophy awaiting the winner.

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