BOSTON — They were playing for their program, which was once a perennial NCAA power but suffered a 34-year national championship drought.
They were playing for the hockey alumni, including the late Keith Magnuson, who died in a December car accident and who has been remembered near their hearts.
They were playing for the underdogs, for those who have been counted out by others but refused to buy into the argument.
They were playing for themselves, a gritty bunch of never-say-die players who appeared to enjoy every single moment of their Frozen Four experience.
And they did it.
Riding the stellar goaltending of senior and tournament Most Outstanding Player Adam Berkhoel, and using a first-period power-play goal by sophomore Gabe Gauthier and an eye-popping 27 blocked shots, Denver held off Maine 1-0 Saturday night at the FleetCenter to win the national championship.
“The last guys to win this are all legends at Denver,” senior captain Ryan Caldwell said. “And maybe one day kids will be looking up to us and be the same kind of inspiration to them.”
Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky became the first person to win NCAA titles as a head coach, assistant coach (Michigan State, 1986) and player (Wisconsin, 1977).
It was Denver’s sixth championship, but the program’s first since 1969.
And it was a decidedly defensive way to produce a champion, but that wasn’t unexpected. Berkhoel and Maine’s Jimmy Howard were the two best goaltenders in the tournament and they showed it Saturday night.
But it was Berkhoel who came out on top, making 24 saves for his second shutout in his last three games. Two weeks ago, he blanked North Dakota 1-0 in the West Regional final to get the Pioneers to the Frozen Four.
“All the talk was about goaltending, and I knew I had to be strong,” Berkhoel said. “Coach has said all along that goaltending is going to make this tournament. The boys have played well in front of me all year long. I’ve been up and down. To end my career, what better way than to play well in the last four games?”
His offense picked him up when he had an off game on Thursday in a 5-3 victory over Minnesota-Duluth in the national semifinals, and he returned the favor on Saturday to close out his collegiate career in style.
It was only the third national championship game that ended in a shutout and the first since 1972.
“[The defense] made it easy for me,” Berkhoel said. “They did everything they needed to do, and I made a couple big saves. Goaltending wins you championships, and I thought I needed to come out with a strong performance.”
Denver (27-12-5) got the only goal of the game midway through the first period on a power play.
Senior Connor James battled in the left corner to win the puck, found a passing lane and got it past the outstretched stick of Maine defenseman Prestin Ryan to Gauthier, who was open in the slot. Gauthier fired a shot through Howard’s pads at 12:26 to give the Pioneers the lead.
Maine (33-8-3) couldn’t atone for its overtime loss to Minnesota in the 2002 title game, in which the Black Bears were 52 seconds away from winning before the Gophers rallied to tie the game. Senior Todd Jackson said on Friday he still wasn’t over the pain of that game, and this one had to add to the misery.
“I wish I had words to describe how I feel, but it’s probably best less said,” Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. “This hurts pretty bad.”
And the Black Bears had reason to be kicking themselves on Saturday.
Maine appeared to get the game’s first goal on a power play just over five minutes into the opening period when center Derek Damon stuffed a deflected shot past Berkhoel and inside the left post.
But the automatic review that is given to all goals by a NCAA replay official found Maine’s Mike Hamilton had part of his skate in the crease before the puck went into the paint, and the goal was waved off.
And the Black Bears had a golden chance in the final two minutes to tie the game. With 2:09 remaining, Denver’s Matt Laatsch was called for hooking. Then, with 1:34 left, Gauthier was whistled for delay of game after he threw the puck out of his zone.
“I think we were pretty confident,” Jackson said. “That’s the best opportunity we could have.”
With the two-man advantage, Maine pulled Howard to create a 6-on-3 chance. But the Pioneers held their ground, thanks to a great glove save by Berkhoel and a Maine shot hitting the post. Maine finished the NCAA tournament 1-for-22 on the power play, and its streak of winning one-goal games ended at eight.
“Defending a 6-on-3, I don’t think we ever have, that I can recall,” Gwozdecky said. “You’re just trying to get in the way of the shooting lanes and with a minute and a half to go … anything goes.”
And so it goes for the Pioneers, who became the third straight WCHA team to win the national title and the second straight to do so with fewer than 30 wins, and managed to keep the sense of cool that became their trademark this weekend despite the loss of their third-leading scorer.
About 90 minutes before the opening faceoff, a Denver spokesman announced the team had suspended senior forward Lukas Dora for an unspecified violation of team policy. Dora scored the winning goal in the third period of a 5-3 victory over Minnesota-Duluth in Thursday’s national semifinals.
The resulting changes in the lineup didn’t seem to negatively affect the Pioneers. They just went about their business and watched Berkhoel emerge as the better goaltender on this night.
The underdog label — they were the lowest remaining overall seed — was fine by the Pioneers in this tournament. And this provided a stunning close to the rollercoaster ride they called the 2003-04 season. Things didn’t look great at midseason, when they were struggling and under .500 in the WCHA.
It was a bad time for the program, too. Magnuson died on Dec. 15. Gwozdecky said this week he hasn’t used the memory of Magnuson, a Denver legend who the coach called “Mr. Pioneer,” as motivation. But the Pioneers wear a patch on their chest remembering the former defenseman who was close to the program.
“I know Keith Magnuson is somewhere looking down,” Gwozdecky said, “and he’s proud, too.”
He’s not the only one. While the Pioneers were playing for their program, their alumni and the cause of underdogs, they won this title for themselves.
“Sometimes, it’s just your time,” Gwozdecky said, evoking a refrain used by Minnesota in its 2002 title run. “And I told the team I really believe that coming into this Frozen Four.
“You have to be good, you have to persevere and you know you’re going to have some battles that if you have the kind of character and you’ve got the kind of team put together that believes in themselves and would fight and die for each other, throw their faces in front of shots and battle, that good things are going to happen.”