Denver was expected to be in the Frozen Four. Two seasons ago.
This season’s Pioneers, a group that has some of the same faces as the best Denver team in many years but one that takes on a different form, has done what that 2002 team didn’t do: break the team’s Frozen Four drought. Their victory over top seed North Dakota just down the road in Colorado Springs gave them the West Regional championship and put Denver in the Frozen Four for the first time in 18 years.
Some of them drew on the experience of the 32-win-and-one-painful-memory season of 2002 to fuel this NCAA tournament run. Is Denver a better team because of what happened in Ann Arbor, Mich., that year? It’s hard to say, but this year’s somewhat surprising run to college hockey’s main event has some ties to the Pioneers’ past.
The great rise of the 2002 Pioneers should have created some good memories, but their sudden fall turned them all sour.
“We had a great season and it’ll be a great memory for me when I’m done playing college hockey,” senior captain Ryan Caldwell said. “But at the time, it was tough.”
The Pioneers are doing their part to right that now.
Denver was the consensus No. 1 team in the country going into the 2002 tournament. The Pioneers won the WCHA regular-season title and had just claimed the league’s playoff crown with a victory over Minnesota in front of a large pro-Gophers crowd in St. Paul.
Their 32-7-1 record earned the Pioneers a first-round bye in the last season of the 12-team national tournament. They had 20-goal scorers Kevin Doell and Chris Paradise, but more importantly had a red-hot goaltender in Wade Dubielewicz.
But they were placed into a bracket that saw them matched up with Michigan at Yost Ice Arena — also known as the place top seeds go to die — in the regional final.
The details are still a little irritating to those who took part for the Pioneers. They led 3-2 after two periods, a nice position because they were 28-1 going into the game when leading after 40 minutes. But the rest is one bad memory after another.
Dubielewicz allowed two goals on 12 shots in the third period, Denver couldn’t regain the momentum and Michigan got an empty-netter for a 5-3 victory to cut the Pioneers’ Frozen Four dreams painfully short.
“It was a team that was destined to go to the Frozen Four, a team that probably was expected to win it all,” Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky said, “and yet, I think we ran out of gas. It was a tough grind to win the WCHA regular-season and playoff championship. And we ran into a very difficult region. We ran into a team that was highly energized by their home crowd, and all of a sudden we’re on the outside looking in at the Frozen Four.
“It was devastating. It was absolutely devastating. I still remember it very, very well.”
How could they forget? The Denver players that are now juniors and seniors sure haven’t.
But this is a different brand of team. In 2002, the Pioneers were a strong, well-built group of players that would take you into the corner and make sure you didn’t come out with the puck. Defenseman Bryan Vines, a strong player with a 6-foot-2 frame, was the face that went with that image.
“There was no messing around on that team,” Gwozdecky said. “Because if Bryan got a hold of you when you were messing around, you were in big trouble.”
Vines, the captain, had a imposing defensive supporting cast in the physical Erik Adams and Jesse Cook. Paradise had 22 goals in his senior season.
“For some reason, I feel like we had a bunch of grown men on that team, our seniors and stuff,” said forward Kevin Ulanski, who was a freshman in 2002. “They were pretty big guys. This year, playing together as a team and almost being underdogs coming in just gives us more confidence and brings our intensity level up a whole notch.”
Today, the Pioneers still have a strong defense — see their 1-0 victory over top-seed North Dakota in the regional finals — but in a different way. Denver’s quick defensemen are also quick to jump into the offense, as evidenced by Caldwell’s 14 goals and 26 points from the blue line.
“We’re a lot different team this year than we were two years ago,” said senior goaltender Adam Berkhoel, who in 2002 was the playoff backup to Dubielewicz after splitting time during the regular season. “We had the big, bruising defensemen and we didn’t have as much speed. Now we have a ton of speed out of our forwards and our defensemen are really active in the play and contributing a lot to our success.”
This year’s Denver team hasn’t had nearly as good a season as its counterpart of two years ago, but if success is measured by the end of the season, these Pioneers have the advantage as the underdogs.
And that’s a title they’re OK with. Not only do they have the lowest overall seed of the teams at the Frozen Four, they had to scramble to get a spot in the top half of the WCHA and missed the league’s Final Five.
Some may have written the Pioneers off when they were struggling at midseason, or when they lost a series to Colorado College in the first round of the league playoffs, or when they were drawn in the same regional as North Dakota.
“We’ve been underdogs all year,” Caldwell said. “We’re not supposed to be here right now. We were supposed to be in this position two years ago, but it didn’t work out. That’s just the way hockey is. Being the underdog is fine with us. We’ve dealt with that throughout this whole season and that doesn’t bother us at all.”
The way the 2002 season ended still does bother some of them. It’s too late for Vines or Cook or Paradise to make up for it, but Caldwell, Ulanski and Berkhoel can do their part for the healing of the program in Boston.
“I think my class and the junior class, we really learned from that,” Caldwell said, “and those experiences from that year are really helping us this year to deal with the pressure, and having to play people who are ranked higher than us and are supposed to be better than us.”