Trail Of The Pioneers

In a score that should have been familiar to those who watched Denver’s NCAA title-game win over Maine in April, the Pioneers rolled into the 2005 national tournament on a crest of good feeling in the form of a 1-0 win over Colorado College in the WCHA championship Saturday.

“The first two periods were kind of a chess match,” said Pioneer forward Luke Fulghum, who scored the only goal DU needed to win the Broadmoor Trophy for the fourth time, after Gabe Gauthier contributed both Pioneer goals in Friday’s semifinal win over North Dakota. “There wasn’t a lot going on.”

Meanwhile, the final score was either fitting or surprising, depending on whether you remember (a) the 2003-04 Pioneers buckling down defensively on the way to the national championship, or (b) the questions about the team’s ‘D’ that were floated early this season.

“They’re very underrated defensively,” said CC coach Scott Owens of the 2004-05 edition of the Pioneers. He should know, since his Tigers saw it firsthand Saturday.

“We work all week, every week on defense,” said Fulghum, “making those little plays that keep the puck out of the net.”

Either way, Denver moves into the NCAAs — in which it is expected to be a No. 1 seed, potentially in one of the Eastern regionals — with plenty of momentum. That’s a far cry from last season, when DU limped in after suffering a WCHA first-round sweep at the hands of the Tigers. The Pioneers sat out the week of the Final Five, then moved into the NCAAs with comparatively little fanfare.

The result, four games later? Denver became the darkhorse national champion after eliminating Minnesota-Duluth and then the Black Bears at the Frozen Four in Boston. Including regional victories over Miami and North Dakota, DU won just one NCAA tournament game by more than a single goal — and that one was due to an empty-netter against UMD.

Naturally, the current version of the Pioneers will not be sneaking up on anyone next weekend.

“I think this team is looking forward, with a lot of excitement and anticipation, to the NCAA tournament,” said Pioneer head coach George Gwozdecky.

Earlier in the weekend, Gwozdecky had minimized congratulations on his 400th career coaching win with the observation that he was more interested in hitting 405, a number which would imply winning both the WCHA and NCAA titles.

The Pioneers have one of those two, thanks in part to goaltenders Glenn Fisher and Peter Mannino. Fisher got the win in Friday’s semifinal, while Mannino tended the net Saturday versus CC. As a result of the split duty — and no other reason, since the two combined to allow one goal on a save percentage on .982 — neither made the all-tournament team, but both were obviously instrumental to the Pioneers’ success.

“Hopefully, that will answer a lot of the doubting Thomases who say, ‘Well, why don’t you play this goaltender this night, or that goaltender that night?'” said Gwozdecky of his goalie rotation.

Expect little to change in Denver’s approach when the NCAAs get under way.

“There are times when you can outthink yourself, and outsmart yourself and outcoach yourself,” said Gwozdecky. “I think there are times when you have to dance with the person you brought. … And I expect that our plan will remain the same this [weekend].”

Denver’s last WCHA title, in 2002, was hardly a harbinger of success at the national tournament. The Pioneers, perhaps drained before the NCAAs even began, exited in the first round after a 5-3 loss to Michigan, in which the Pioneers led after two periods but ran out of gas as the Wolverines scored three times in the third to advance.

“Believe me, this team is very pleased, and proud and happy, but [in 2002] we really extended ourselves to win the [WCHA] championship,” said Gwozdecky. “We were on a little bit of a downhill swing.

“I don’t see this team emotionally spent tonight like they were three years ago, and obviously that’s a good thing.”