CHICAGO — Back in December, the then-No. 1 Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs faced the then-No. 2 Denver Pioneers in a two-game set at Magness Arena in Denver. The series was a split, with Denver winning Friday and Duluth winning Saturday, and both games were essentially one-goal affairs, with Duluth netting an empty-netter in the 3-1 win Saturday.
They’ll decide the season series in the national championship game Saturday.
“That weekend was a lot of fun as a player. It was back-and-forth hockey,” said the Pioneers’ Colin Staub, who had two assists in Thursday’s semifinal against Notre Dame. “It was a lot of speed. It was pretty physical. … It was 1 versus 2 that weekend and there was a lot of hype going into it and it was a lot of fun for players. And the split kind of made it a little more of a rivalry coming into this game now. And we were really excited to be able to see who comes out on top.”
Both of those games were back-and-forth affairs, with Duluth getting the early lead in both. Denver rallied Friday to take a 3-1 lead in part due to the play of Troy Terry, who had three points.
“I think we’re confident coming from what we gained from that series, but we’ve grown a lot from where we were in December,” said Evan Ritt. “We can roll four lines. And we’re getting a lot more offensive production. And we’re shutting teams down defensively. So we feel good, but it’s a one-game playoff so anything can happen. So we’ve got to be focused and ready.”
One potential wild card in this matchup will be freshman forward Henrik Borgström, who did not play in the series in December because of illness.
“Anytime you can inject one of the most talented offensive players in college hockey into a lineup that the team hasn’t seen, you can watch film on them, but when you get on the ice, it’s a different world, especially for goaltenders,” said Denver coach Jim Montgomery. “The first time they can see him shoot a puck, they can look at it on film, but the puck gets on you real quick. If you’re not used to it, it’s by you. And the first time he’s let it go on most of the goaltenders, I’m talking great goaltenders in the NCHC, like [North Dakota’s] Cam Johnson and the freshman at Western that had a great year, too [Ben Blacker], he puts it by them and they’re not used to it, has an NHL release, and hides his release. Kind of like Luis Tiant on the mound, puts it behind his hip, and he all of a sudden whips it at you.”
Borgström knows that Duluth likes to play physically, and the Bulldogs have clogged up the neutral zone effectively in all their postseason games, but he expects that if Denver can stay focused on its own play, that will lead to success.
“Duluth is from the NCHC, the best conference in college hockey,” said Borgström. “They’re a heavy team. It will be a tough matchup for us for sure, but I feel like as long as we come to this game with the same aggressiveness and tempo we did last night, I think we’ll be just fine. We just have to forecheck hard. I think we don’t have to change anything.”