MINNEAPOLIS — With less than two minutes remaining in the game that would determine the final team in the NCAA tournament, Miami turned Denver’s two-goal lead into a 4-3 battle to the final second.
But it wasn’t enough.
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Miami’s Anthony Louis caught a pass at the side of the net and shot it past Brittain (23 saves) at 18:27 of the third period, though the goaltender’s poise on the ice was never shaken.
“Obviously you can’t let that stuff rattle you,” Brittain said. “They’re a good team. … We were able to keep them away, keep them pinned in their zone and we stuck to our game plan and obviously it worked out very good. But tons of credit for them: They made it a long night for us and we were able to hold them off and get the win.”
The night began in favor of Denver as it controlled the game in the opening frame when Nolan Zajac fired a point shot that put the Pioneers (20-15-6) ahead.
Daniel Doremus contributed to the lead when he buried a rebound past Ryan McKay (24 saves) at 13:48.
The Pioneers searched for another goal as a hooking penalty on Miami’s Alex Wideman at 18:19 left them with the man advantage, but the RedHawks’ tenacity began to show after a slow start.
“That was a huge kill,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. “We started to get a little more aggressive. We started to get our legs. We had no energy. Our guys came out flat. I’ll take full blame for that — that was unacceptable in a championship game. I thought we got some momentum from that penalty kill.”
That momentum carried into the second period as Louis caught a rebound on an odd bounce off the boards from Sean Kuraly and sent it past Brittain.
Kuraly tallied another goal for Miami (15-20-3) at 16:08 to tie the game at 2-2.
With one spot left to fill in the national tournament, Denver and Miami each took the ice in the third period with one goal in mind.
“We weren’t letting that victory slip out of our hands,” Denver forward Zac Larraza said. “We knew what we had to do. We just put our minds to it and went out and worked.”
It didn’t take long before Larraza took a shot at McKay from the circle to take back the lead at 1:06 of the final frame.
When Emil Romig caught a pass in front of the net minutes later, the two-goal lead Denver built looked to hold steady.
Louis’ goal in the final minutes proved otherwise, but the final buzzer awarded the Pioneers the championship.
Finishing as the No. 6 seed in the NCHC, finding a spot on the national stage didn’t look to be a simple feat for Denver.
The last time the Pioneers didn’t make the national tournament was 2007, and the race to continue the tradition wasn’t as long as it looked to be.
“To be honest, with the group of guys we have, it wasn’t far at all,” Larraza said. “You saw how hard we worked last weekend and this weekend. We didn’t think it was out of reach at all. We knew what we had to do and we put our minds to it and look what happened: We’re in the NCAA tournament, so we’re all pretty happy with the outcome this weekend.”
For Miami, the sting of the end of a season brings back memories of months prior.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, there’s no question about it,” Blasi said. “You can’t finish last in the league and try to make a run at the end. I thought our guys did as good a job as they could, but we needed that kind of consistency in January and February and we didn’t have it.”
In his first year behind the bench at Denver, Jim Montgomery saw his team overcome what he knew they could in clinching the NCHC championship over a strong opponent.
“Really proud of our student athletes,” Montgomery said. “The things that they’ve overcome — just the ups and downs with injuries this season, it’s amazing what they’ve been able to overcome. The resiliency and the responses we’ve had all year, I’m not surprised with what I thought was our best team effort tonight against a great team in Miami, who showed why they were preseason No. 1.”