No Remedy for Denver En Route to NCAA Title
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CHICAGO Vince Lombardi, the legendary former NFL head coach, famously said, "Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence."
And really, to say that anything is 'contagious' implies that it is transmissible, or spreadable. Laughter, after all, is said to be infectious. Yawning, too. And in medicine, there are plenty of highly contagious infectious diseases — like tuberculosis, influenza, and measles.
The now-reigning national champions, the 2016-17 Denver Pioneers, dealt with a contagion, too.
No, not any of those infectious diseases. Not the more abstract concept of burden, built from last season's NCAA Frozen Four loss to North Dakota.
Not even the food poisoning that afflicted freshman Henrik Borgstrom on the eve of the NCAA tournament.
During Denver's run to the 2017 national title, the Pioneers' confidence — and then the pure ability — to score goals in quick succession became the team's offensive trademark, part of their now-characteristic relentless attack that, yes, came in spurts.
Within those spurts, confidence proved contagious.
In the tournament opener against Michigan Tech, the Pioneers scored three goals in less than three minutes en route to a 5-2 win. Denver enjoyed similar stretches in dominant wins over Penn State and Notre Dame.
And in Saturday's national title game, sophomore Jarid Lukosevicius scored three goals in a span of 7:37 in the second period. After each goal, the drive to quickly score again spread down the bench.
Indeed, it 'went viral' and established a trend contrary to the oft-seen tendency for a team to experience a let down after scoring.
"We always talk about keeping our foot on their throat," said Pioneers head coach Jim Montgomery, the fifth consecutive first-time champion as head coach. "And we talk about going right back at them. And if you watch the neutral zone faceoffs, we're never retreating, we're going forward with it. And I think that's a big part of our mentality is when we score, we want to keep people down."
Saturday night's 3-2 title game triumph over Minnesota-Duluth served as perhaps the best example of that mentality for Denver — because not only was that tenacity infectious, it was critical.
"If we don't keep that momentum," said sophomore Colin Staub of Denver's second period dominance, "then maybe Duluth gets to come back a little bit earlier, and it's a whole different game. The shift after a goal is huge — especially after our first goal, we came right back and got another one. And that deflates teams. That gives us a ton of momentum. And maintaining that momentum is a huge reason why we won that game."
Denver's top line of Lukosevicius, Troy Terry, and Dylan Gambrell was dominant in Saturday's title tilt. But over the course of the Pioneers' four NCAA tourney wins, each of Denver's four forward lines has had a moment to shine.
Continued Staub, "We have a lot of depth on our team, so we're rolling four lines. And a lot of teams, especially at this time of year, aren't able to handle that. They aren't able to handle the rush that we have, with four lines going at 100 percent. Tonight, that opened up some space for our top line, and they were able to execute. That's an attribution to the depth of our team."
Panic could be contagious, too. But that concept was rejected by Denver, over and over again during the course of the season. After all, panic is produced from a lack of confidence, and the Pioneers never wavered in their focus down the stretch.
"Whether we score a goal or ring one off the post or get scored on, we stay even-keeled, and that's how we played all season," said senior forward and faceoff specialist Matt Marcinew after Saturday's contest. "When Minnesota-Duluth got that power play goal [to cut the lead to 3-2], we stayed even keeled even then — level-headed, because we know that if we stick to our process, it's going to bring us success. That's what we did, and we came out on top."
The national championship game was not an isolated example of Denver's contagious approach to putting teams away. It started months ago, and by the end of the 33-win season, it was an epidemic.
"It starts from our head coach," said Staub, of Montgomery, who joins Mike Eaves (Wisconsin), Al Renfrew (Michigan) and George Gwozdecky (Wisconsin, Denver) as the only individuals to win the NCAA title as both a player and a head coach. "Then it goes through our whole team. Our seniors and our coaches made sure we were all focused on our next shift. We weren't looking ahead.
"When we were up 2-0 [in the second period], we're not thinking about being national champions. We're thinking about the next shift. With four minutes left, we're not thinking that they might score. We're staying in the moment and focusing on our next shift to maintain that momentum."
Of course, Minnesota-Duluth did eventually gain plenty of momentum in Saturday's title game — using a strong third period effort to push Denver to the limit, almost forcing overtime on a number of occasions in the final moments.
But by then, Denver had built its lead. And these Pioneers — 25-0-1 this season when scoring first — do not give up their leads.
Why? So often, as it did Saturday, scoring first often meant scoring again. And again and again in quick succession.
Indeed, for the new national champions, that approach was contagious. In the end, so was winning.
And for that, there's no need for a cure.