ST. PAUL, Minn. — So what if accomplishing objective No. 2 actually came before No. 1? The Denver Pioneers have both, a pair of trophies and a bit of history on their side in their quest for No. 3.
The Pioneers got superb goaltending from WCHA Final Five MVP Wade Dubielewicz and a goal from each of the four forward lines Saturday night to win the Broadmoor Trophy with a 5-2 victory over Minnesota at the Xcel Energy Center.
Denver coach George Gwozdecky offered a day earlier that his team had set three goals for this season: win the league’s playoff title, get a first-round bye for the NCAA tournament and win the national championship.
Two down, one to go.
The first-round bye was clinched earlier in the day, but that didn’t prevent the Pioneers from smothering the Gophers, despite being outshot 40-27.
“From day one we’ve had three goals,” Dubielewicz said. “We accomplished two of them tonight.”
The goalie with the funny name gets most of the credit, but don’t forget about the rest of the Pioneers.
“If anyone thinks Wade won this tournament, they’re missing a pretty good tournament,” Gwozdecky said. “It has to be a collective effort. Wade played his role and was outstanding.
“The scoring tonight was typical of our team. We got goals from five different guys, four different lines.”
Dubielewicz, though, was the centerpiece of this effort. The league’s first-team goaltender and a finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award was just as advertised: Nearly unbeatable in the clutch.
The two goals he allowed Saturday night were the only ones that got past him in the WCHA playoffs. That helped the Pioneers become the first team since 1991 to win the WCHA regular-season and playoff championships in the same season.
That team? Northern Michigan. Weeks after winning the Broadmoor Trophy at the St. Paul Civic Center, the building that formerly occupied the site of the Xcel Center, the Wildcats returned and won the national championship.
A repeat of that feat is the Pioneers’ third goal for the season. They’re not there, but the way they played this weekend, they’ll be one of the favorites to skate the national championship trophy around this same ice in three weeks.
“I’ve said it all year: I don’t think they’ve received the credit that they have earned,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “There’s a reason why they won the regular-season title. There’s a reason why they won the playoff title. They play their systems very well.”
As opposed to their 4-1 victory over St. Cloud State in the semifinals on Friday, the Gophers (29-8-4) suffered from a lack of big plays in a big game.
Hobey finalist Jordan Leopold? Minus-2. Same for star forward Johnny Pohl. Jeff Taffe, the Gophers’ leading goalscorer, was minus-4.
But, again, a good chunk of that credit goes to Denver. Dubielewicz said the Pioneers (32-7-1) didn’t play the Gophers any differently than anyone else, but they were able to shut down Minnesota’s big guns.
“The only way you’re going to score against Dubielewicz is if he doesn’t see the puck or if you get a rebound,” Pohl said. “I think he saw every puck.”
A big part of Denver staying in control of this game throughout was its ability to respond to the Gophers’ goals, keeping the Pioneers one step ahead for the entire game.
David Neale and Kevin Ulanski scored early in the first and second periods, respectively, to stake Denver to a 2-0 lead.
Minnesota’s Keith Ballard cut into the lead just 60 seconds after Ulanski’s goal, at 2:29, being the recipient of a clever Barry Tallackson skate pass at the left side of the net.
Denver’s Max Bull gave the Pioneers a two-goal cushion again, though, 1:34 thereafter, scoring after Taffe gave the puck away on pressure from Greg Keith deep in the Gophers’ zone.
The Gophers’ Troy Riddle again got the Gophers within one 13 minutes into the second period, but Greg Barber’s breakaway goal and Kevin Doell’s empty-netter in the third put the game away.
“It seems like every time we had a chance to get back into it,” Lucia said, “Denver would get the next goal.”
Minnesota goaltender Adam Hauser started to show signs of frustration in the third period. After Barber beat him on the breakaway, he slammed his stick into the inside of the post.
He later took a slashing penalty and a holding penalty 95 seconds apart.
“He was probably a little frustrated at that time,” Lucia said.
Hauser and the Gophers had every right to be. Denver stole their thunder — and that of the largely pro-Minnesota crowd of 18,126.
That’s not to say there weren’t some rough moments for the Pioneers, too, but they found a way through them.
Up 3-1 in the second period, they gave Minnesota four straight power plays; Riddle’s goal came on the third one.
“I wasn’t nervous, but we’re still an inexperienced team somewhat,” Dubielewicz said. “We were starting to run around a little bit and possibly took a few penalties we could have avoided with some composure. It’s a new experience for us, and I thought we overcame it.”
They did, and they have but one more hurdle to overcome before returning to St. Paul for the Frozen Four.