CHICAGO — Way back in December, Minnesota Duluth traveled to Denver for a big weekend in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. They split two entertaining games, and then turned their attention to the rest of the season.
A couple months later, they are together again for the national championship.
The Bulldogs and Pioneers play Saturday night in the Frozen Four final, a matchup of familiar foes who have circled each other for much of the season as two of the top teams in the country.
“It’s always physical against those guys, but obviously we really respect each other,” said Emil Romig, a senior forward for Denver. “This year we’ve been, you know, switching off in the No. 1 and No. 2 spot basically all year long. So basically there’s a lot of respect. But we’re all here to, you know, come out on top. So in that respect, in that perspective, I guess not that much respect.”
The last time the schools played, Minnesota Duluth snapped Denver’s 15-game unbeaten streak with a 3-1 victory on Dec. 10. It was just a one-goal game before an empty-netter for Joey Anderson sealed the win with a minute left.
It was solid response by the Bulldogs after they lost 4-3 in the series opener the previous night. Denver grabbed control with three goals in the second period and then held off a push by Duluth in the final minutes.
“The games we played in Denver were two very good games, 4-3, 3-1, I think that’s going to be the type of game it’s going to be,” Bulldogs defenseman Willie Raskob said Friday. “We’re a good skating team, they’re a good skating team. I think it will be a fun game.”
It looked as if the schools were headed for a third meeting before the Pioneers lost 1-0 to North Dakota in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff semifinals in Minneapolis last month. The Bulldogs went on to win the title with a 4-3 win against the Fighting Hawks, and Denver beat Western Michigan 3-1 in the third-place game.
The Frozen Faceoff loss proved to be a turning point for the top-seeded Pioneers (32-7-4), who have won four in a row by a combined score of 20-7. They advanced to the NCAA final with a dominant 6-1 victory against Notre Dame on Thursday night.
“I think going into that game we were on a great win streak, and I think all of us kind of were on cloud nine and we thought we were invincible and we kind of got away from knowing what it takes to win, especially against great teams like North Dakota,” Romig said. “And it was definitely a wake-up call. Silver lining here, it came at the right time and gave us a chance to regroup and focus on the details of our game.”
The Bulldogs (28-6-7) have won eight in a row. They are 16-1-3 in their last 20 games, but it hasn’t been easy.
Minnesota Duluth opened the NCAA Tournament with 3-2 overtime wins against Ohio State and Boston. Then it squeaked by Harvard 2-1 in the first national semifinal on Alex Iafallo’s goal with 26.6 seconds left. Harvard’s Luke Esposito hit the crossbar with four seconds remaining.
“That was definitely the longest 30 seconds of my life,” Minnesota Duluth captain Dominic Toninato said. “I mean they had some good chances and we were fortunate. So we got one more game for a national championship.”
It remains to be seen what if anything is still applicable from the teams’ previous series. Denver played without freshman phenom Henrik Borgstrom, who was sidelined by an illness, and Minnesota Duluth was off for almost three weeks before the games against the Pioneers.
Much has changed since December.
“We all know how good and talented Duluth is,” Denver coach Jim Montgomery said. “They’re a mentally tough team. They’re hard in all three zones. They don’t give you an inch. And we know that. You’re going to have to go out and earn it. That’s why I think it’s going to be a great game tomorrow night.”