Denver Recaptures Glory, But Can’t Capture Frozen Four Spot

Given the chance to do it all over again, George Gwozdecky would do it the same way.

The Denver coach has looked at the videotape of the third period of last Saturday’s 5-3 loss to Michigan in the NCAA quarterfinals, but didn’t see anything that his team did poorly to allow the Wolverines to take the lead and the game away.

Maybe that makes it a little tougher to digest the game that ended the Pioneers’ hopes at a national championship. The talent was there, the skill was there, but, on that night, the third-period goals weren’t.

They took a one-goal lead into the third period against Michigan, but saw the Wolverines make the key plays to turn the game around. What they didn’t see was any of their players make a big play in return.

Still, while a team can sometimes be defined by its last game, Gwozdecky, a few days removed from his team’s ouster, won’t let the Pioneers’ exit cloud a stellar season.

Michigan's Erik Nystrom comes in on DU goalie Wade Dubielewicz in the Pioneers' season-ending loss on Saturday. (photo by Christopher Brian Dudek)

Michigan’s Erik Nystrom comes in on DU goalie Wade Dubielewicz in the Pioneers’ season-ending loss on Saturday. (photo by Christopher Brian Dudek)

“The highs far outnumber the lows,” he said. “The highs of winning tough games, of playing against great competition in this league and being able to be successful, of getting the No. 1 label attached to us and learning how to deal with it and how to play with it — all these things made us a better team.”

Denver won 32 games and the WCHA’s regular-season and playoff titles this season, awakening one of college hockey’s slumbering giants. Not since the 1985-86 season has a Pioneers team been so successful. DU had only one stellar team in the 1970s, the 1977-78 team that won 33 games.

The Pioneers won four NCAA titles in the 1960s, and talk this year centered around this Denver team having the best chance to link those two eras in program history.

“What this team accomplished this year really brought back great memories,” Gwozdecky said. “What this team did this year has restored an awful lot of interest and excitement in the program and support, from not only the city of Denver, but more specifically our hockey alumni across the country.”

The task now for the Pioneers to avoid the pitfalls of the 1977-78 and 1985-86 teams. Each time, the program had a fall from grace the season after, returning to the .500 level.

As far away as it appears now for the Pioneers, next season could yield some of the same results as this year.

Goaltenders Wade Dubielewicz and Adam Berkhoel are set to return, and only one of this year’s top 10 scorers is a senior. Chris Paradise will leave after a 41-point season, third-best on the team.

While the Pioneers’ future offensive production looks promising, Gwozdecky is justifiably nervous about the possibility of some of his top forwards leaving early. Junior Kevin Doell and sophomore Connor James topped the team’s scoring chart, and each is undrafted.

If his team manages to stay together through the offseason, though, Gwozdecky is confident in the chances for a similar 2002-03 season.

“This team next year is going to have even greater goals set for themselves, I would think,” Gwozdecky said, “based on what this team was able to accomplish this year, and what we weren’t able to accomplish. … On paper, we should be as good, if not better.

“That’s something that you have to guard against. The chemistry and the leadership we had this year was outstanding. And you’re never sure how that’s going to develop and how that’s going to carry over to the next class.”