The Denver Pioneers aren’t exactly a senior-laden team. Only four dot the roster, with three of those seeing regular playing time. But when it matters — as it did on Saturday in the WCHA championship game — DU can count on its veterans to make the difference.
Peter Mannino starred in net for the Pioneers once again Saturday, allowing just one Minnesota goal on 34 shots, while Tom May scored the winning goal in the second period, and captain Andrew Thomas soaked up plenty of ice time while providing his usual leadership from the blue line.
In one sense, the WCHA title game didn’t change much, since Denver was already locked into a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament even before the weekend began.
In another, however, it was critical indeed. Denver hadn’t been to the WCHA Final Five since its 2005 national-title run, and the Broadmoor Trophy was a welcome addition to the Pioneers’ trophy case.
Said Thomas, “We’ve had a lot of preparation and a couple of tough years, so we’re glad to be back.”
At Denver, a school with seven NCAA hockey championships, history and tradition are never far away. That fact was in evidence this weekend as May, for one, referenced past Denver leaders like Hobey Baker winner Matt Carle and Adrian Veideman in his postgame comments.
“We’ve just tried to continue with what they’ve built,” he said.
Mannino agreed, but also established this Pioneer team’s unique identity.
“We just try to do our own thing in our own way and lead the team like we did today,” he acknowledged.
For each of the seniors on this year’s squad, 2005 looms large in their experience. That year, the Pioneers won their second straight NCAA title, and did so in dominating fashion, taking the MacNaughton Cup and the Broadmoor Trophy before going on to claim the national championship in the year of the all-WCHA Frozen Four.
Though that memory burns bright, the lean years in between have left their mark.
“It’s just different,” said Mannino. “You come in as a freshman and you don’t know what to expect.”
This year’s squad, of course, had a rockier road to the WCHA tournament championship. Unlike 2005, they didn’t win the regular season, and went into the Final Five as the third seed. But recent results indicate that the Pioneers are peaking at the right time.
“Hopefully we’re hitting our stride now,” said Thomas.
If they are, it was on the grandest stage the WCHA has to offer. Once again, packed houses greeted the teams at the Xcel Energy Center, and the atmosphere was electric, as usual.
“Who wouldn’t want to play in an event like this?” asked Denver head coach George Gwozdecky in rhetorical fashion. “It’s one of the events in every student-athlete’s career that he’ll remember for a lifetime.
“The stage doesn’t get much bigger than playing at the Xcel Center in the WCHA tournament.”
Now, though, with the WCHA playoffs behind them, the Pioneers are focused forward, with a nod to the present.
“The regionals are so difficult and so pressure-packed,” said Gwozdecky, “and I’m just glad we’ve got good old Peter Mannino in net to settle us down when we get a little antsy.”