New Team, New Time

A year ago, Denver players stepped in front of the cameras and the microphones and made it seem like being at the Frozen Four was no great weight on their minds.

Now, the Pioneers return to that situation. Will things be different? Possibly, if you listen to Denver captain Matt Laatsch. Whereas Ryan Caldwell, last year’s captain, kept a loose atmosphere because of his personality, Laatsch has a different approach.

“This year’s team is totally different from last year’s team and especially in the approach to games,” said Laatsch, who will lead his team into the national semifinals against rival Colorado College on Thursday. “I think this year’s team is much more businesslike. Ryan last year as the captain was more of a loosey-goose, go-with-the-moment type of guy. When it came down to it, he was all business, though.

“But for myself and the way I’ve gone about things as the captain, I’m more of a serious guy, more all-business-all-the-time. And I think this team has taken that personality on. We’re definitely not that team that’s going to be loose. We’re going there to try to take care of business.”

That’s one of the many differences between these Pioneers and the ones that won the national title last season.

Consider the road each team traveled to get to the Frozen Four. A year ago, Denver had an inconsistent regular season and saw that capped by being knocked out of the WCHA playoffs in the first round. This time around, it has been much more of a consistent team, with nothing more than a two-game losing streak all year.

The Pioneers take a seven-game winning streak into the semifinals, thanks perhaps to a season-long buildup of the team that, along the way, brought a share of the WCHA regular-season title and the league’s playoff crown.

“We put ourselves in a situation where we were able to play consistent enough to play ourselves into a share of the WCHA title,” said Laatsch, a senior defenseman. “That consistency has picked up the momentum as the year went on. We never got a series swept from us, and it continued on into the playoffs. I think that approach is really right for this team whereas last year it might not have worked. We’re where we want to be right now. You get to the Frozen Four and that’s the tough part. Once you get there, it’s just like, roll the dice and see what happens.”

The Pioneers are far more prepared to deal with everything that surrounds their appearance in the Frozen Four the second time around and that puts them in a better frame of mind, coach George Gwozdecky said.

Then again, it didn’t work out so bad last season.

The Pioneers arrived in Boston to a police escort around the city that, for some, could make the gravity of the occasion hit home. Instead, they kidded and joked about that and other topics at news conferences. And then they won two games to win the school’s first hockey national championship since 1969.

“One of the things we really stressed last year, and as I look back perhaps it gave us some help, I think you really need to emphasize that this experience of being at a Frozen Four, at a major championship on the national stage so to speak, is something that you need to be able to appreciate and enjoy,” Gwozdecky said. “Because it is a great experience and it is an awful lot of fun. You have to be able to have fun with it during your off times. When it comes time to get down to business, that’s when that focus has got to be right there.

“I think there are times when some teams at every level in many championships come in so focused, so intense that they forget to stop and smell the roses. And a lot of times, I think they don’t leave it all on the ice because they’re so wound up and I think perhaps they regret that they didn’t enjoy the moment a little bit more. I’ve always been a big believer in being able to enjoy the spoils of your success within limits and at the same time being ready to play as hard as you possibly can when it comes time to. I think that’s probably as important as anything going into this major championship.”

Last year, however, the Pioneers entered the Frozen Four as the underdog. They’re under no such illusion this year as the top remaining seed in the tournament.

Gwozdecky sees the 2004 and 2005 Pioneers as different teams with different challenges and different pressures. This season’s team may appear better equipped to win a national championship, but that matters little when it comes down to the final three games of the college hockey season.

As the defending national champion, Denver has been a target all season. The Pioneers’ captain said it hasn’t affected them much.

“I wouldn’t say there’s more pressure this year,” Laatsch said. “This team all year has played not to defend the national title but to go out and try to win another one. I don’t think we feel the pressure.”