CHICAGO — When Minnesota Duluth and Denver take the ice in Saturday’s national championship game at the United Center in Chicago, most believe that it will be a great game, maybe even an instant classic.
What people can’t tell you a little more than 24 hours before the puck is dropped is what style of play the game will take on.
Frozen Four 2017
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“I think run and gun is dangerous to play with a team like Denver,” said Bulldogs senior defenseman Willie Raskob. “You see they score a lot of goals.”
That Denver team, with an offense that ranks eighth nationally at 3.47 goals per game, was on display on Thursday. Battling one of the nation’s top goaltenders in Notre Dame’s Cal Petersen, the Pioneers exploded for a six spot.
Over the last 10 games, Denver is averaging 4.2 goals per game, and that included being shut out by North Dakota in the NCHC semifinals.
But one thing Minnesota Duluth proved on Thursday in a 2-1 victory over Harvard in the national semifinal was that this team can adapt to its opponent.
The Crimson entered the game with the second-best offense nationally but was held to a lone first-period power-play goal. Much of the reason was Duluth’s ability to gum up the neutral zone and slow the transition game of the up-tempo Harvard offense.
The ability to put forward a repeat performance on Saturday night might be the key to the game.
“I don’t think we have to quit what we’re doing right now. We’ve just got to keep playing defense on those guys especially and be real hard on them,” said Minnesota Duluth senior blueliner Brenden Kotyk. “I think that will be key to us.”
His head coach agreed.
“Defensively, you’ve got to be tight,” said Duluth coach Scott Sandelin. “You’re going to have to weather some storms. [Denver’s] going to play in the offensive zone and they transition well, but in the offensive zone, they possess the puck, they move, they get five men involved in the attack, and obviously they’ve got some great guys to finish around the net.”
The ability to get up and down the ice quickly is where Denver’s focus has been and remains heading into Saturday’s national title game. Certainly, having played Minnesota Duluth earlier in the season (a two-game series split in December), they know a little bit of the team they’ll face.
But there’s also an understanding that both teams have changed and matured since the pre-Christmas meeting, so sticking to a game plan will be critical for the Pioneers.
“Our team, we focus on ourselves and our process,” said Denver senior forward Evan Ritt. “And I think if we go into it and we know this is our game to win and we stick to our process, it will be successful.”
“I think both teams have really grown since our last encounter in December,” said Denver coach Jim Montgomery. “I think both teams have gotten significantly better and both teams can win in different ways. So I’m not sure [what style the game will be], because both teams have changed.”
There are a few X-factors that will impact Saturday’s games. High-flying rookie Henrik Borgstrom wasn’t in the lineup when the two met in early December. Additionally, each team’s netminder — rookie Hunter Miska for Duluth and junior Tanner Jaillet — both have game-stealing ability.
The other variable could be which team scores first.
Since the beginning of the season, Minnesota Duluth hasn’t worried when falling behind and, in fact, trailed Harvard 1-0 on Thursday before rallying for the game’s final two goals.
But Denver has relished the role of front-runners and made opponents pay throughout the NCAA tournament when it falls behind.
The Pioneers have never trailed since the beginning of the tournament. Of the 180 minutes they’ve played, the have been tied for fewer than 21 minutes.
“We go out and play our style and hopefully we can gain momentum and roll our lines,” said Montgomery. “[Thursday’s] first period, I was behind the bench and I didn’t have to worry about any of it. They were just rolling the four lines and they were playing at an incredible rate.”