It’s a coach’s worst nightmare.
You execute your game plan perfectly. You dominate your opponent at the game’s opening. And what do you have to show for it? Nada. Zilch. Zip.
After a sluggish start Saturday for defending national champion Denver that resulted in the Pioneers needing overtime to get past underdog Bemidji State, the last thing that Denver wanted was another slow start in Sunday’s regional final against New Hampshire.
Thus, the Pioneers’ game plan was to push, battle, shoot from the hot-dog stand if you have to — anything to create opportunities. Execution: perfect. Results: none. Better said, a 1-1 tie despite at one point in the first period holding an 18-3 advantage in shots.
If you want to make matters a little worse, the ability to stay close actually gave New Hampshire life. In the second, the Wildcats took play to the Pioneers and, when Daniel Winnik scored on, of all things, a penalty shot at 13:27, Denver found itself trailing, 2-1, in the final of the Northeast Regional.
That’s a scenario that would make any coach want to toss his cookies.
But not Denver coach George Gwozdecky. Calm, cool and collected, he and his Pioneers went into survival mode. A power-play goal, a workingman’s goal in front late in the third and an empty-netter spelled a 4-2 victory for the Pioneers Sunday, and with it back-to-back trips to the Frozen Four for the Pioneers for the first time since the early ’70s.
“It’s very difficult to get to the Frozen Four,” said Gwozdecky. “To be able to even get through the regular season in the WCHA, it’s hard to survive. It’s really a marathon.
“Thinking about being defending national champions, with the season we have played, it’s just absurd.”
Denver, though, can begin processing those thoughts. Columbus is the next destination, and a third rematch for the Pioneers will come in the national semifinal when they face Colorado College a week from Thursday.
The Pioneers faced the Tigers in the final weekend of the regular season for the MacNaughton Cup. Two weeks later they locked horns for the WCHA playoff title with Denver coming out on top. Two weeks from now the stakes will be raised once again.
“[CC head coach] Scotty [Owens] and I were chatting after the WCHA playoffs that it would be great to play again for the national championship,” said Gwozdecky. “This is close. This will be just terrific for both programs and how they are perceived in the state of Colorado.”
The bid and matchup intact, Gwozdecky didn’t mind admitting that his stomach was churning a little bit throughout the game. Between Denver’s inability to capitalize early on its scoring chances and the Pioneers’ power play looking inept through the game’s first 30 minutes, agita was quickly setting in.
“The first period, I guess I wasn’t that concerned at that point,” said Gwozdecky. “We wanted to and did establish the way we wanted to play the game.
“But in the second period, our power play was just so ineffective. That seemed to really turn the tide in UNH’s favor. We were getting it in their zone but we weren’t allowed to gain possession. There was a portion of the game at which our power play’s attack coming up the ice was just ineffective. At that point I was just a little bit concerned with the game.”
Enter Gabe Gauthier, the Northeast Regional Most Outstanding Player. He already had one goal in the game, the only product of Denver’s early offensive onslaught. With things looking like they might slip away, his power-play tally with 1:58 remaining in the second tied the game through two.
After Ryan Dingle scored the eventual game winner with 3:43 left in regulation, Gauthier added the icing on the cake, completing a hat trick but burying an empty-netter in the final minute.
Game. Set. Match. Relief.
The Pioneers faithful could cheer and Gwozdecky could breathe a sigh of relief. The long flight back to Denver would be filled with smiles, not players thinking, “What if?”
“Words can’t express how happy I am for these kids,” said Gwozdecky, who grabbed a laugh when he joked that he feels getting to the Frozen Four is tougher on the coach than the players. “This team has done a terrific job of trying to establish its identity. They’ve done that, established a whole different identity than last year’s team. That’s a very difficult challenge to go through for six and a half, heck, eight months when you think of all the conditioning.”
Indeed, this version of Denver has established its own identity. Now, the 2004-05 club is prepared to share a moniker with its predecessor: national champion.