Pioneers and Mavericks Face-off for National Championship
Boston, MA – All of the hard work competing at the NCAA level came to fruition for one school tonight. Will it be a return to the promised land for one of college hockey’s storied programs, the Denver Pioneers? The Pioneers have won the National Championship eight times, most recently in 2017. Or will it be the new kid on the block, the Minnesota St. Mavericks? The Mavericks are playing in their first National Championship game after jumping to Division I hockey in the 1996-97 season.
The Frozen Four at TD Garden has lived up to the hype. The title game should be one for the ages as college hockey’s top two offensive teams take the ice for an 8:00 pm EST start on Saturday night.
The Mavericks have been the best team since the 2021-22 season. They came east to open the season against the defending National Champion Massachusetts Minutemen, where they promptly swept the Minutemen. The Pioneers have had to push the proverbial cart up the mountain to get to this point. Their season has been a steady climb to get to this point.
On Thursday, the Pioneers and the Mavericks used their defensive prowess to stifle talented Michigan and Minnesota teams to reach the finals. Most commentators expected a high-scoring affair that didn’t materialize in the Denver vs. Michigan game. The Pioneers limited the high-flying Wolverines to just 21 shots on goal through three-and-a-half periods of action in their 3-2 overtime win.
The Mavericks have the game’s best goalie in Dryden McKay. Their defense and McKay shut down the Gophers’ offense after allowing a goal on their first shot during a two-on-oh opportunity in the first period of their 5-1 win in the nightcap at the Garden.
“What you do with the puck is one thing, but it’s just as important what you’re doing without the puck to get it back,” said Minnesota St. head coach Mike Hastings. “Both teams, you watch Denver. They’re about as detailed a team that I’ve seen with their sticks, getting back on top, what they did to an incredibly talented Michigan team. When we got behind in the game (against Minnesota), I thought it was still really important that we continue to defend so they didn’t extend the lead, then when we didn’t have the puck get it back so we could get on offense.”
“I just think there are two sides to the game. You have to be committed to both sides of that I think to be effective at this time (of the year). That’s why I think both teams moved on with the opportunity for Saturday,” added Hastings.
“We have our way of playing the game,” said Denver head coach David Carle. “I think it’s adaptable to any style we go against. We’re comfortable in a lot of different types of games. That’s a credit to the players and their ability to stick to our game plans and stick to our structure and be able to execute in different ways based on what the game’s calling.”
“I think it’s predictable and fast,” said Carle of the Pioneers’ transition game. “Our D doesn’t hang on to the puck too long. I think our forwards like to get the puck quicker so they can have the puck, can do what they do, attacking off the rush, or getting pucks in behind defensive opponents. It allows our team to play fast and make our opponents uncomfortable.”
McKay won the Hobey Baker Award for being college hockey’s top player on Friday. It is just the third time a goalie has won the award in the competition’s 42-year history. A netminder won the award in 2001 when Michigan State’s Ryan Miller won. McKay’s statistics speak for themselves, 38-4 record, including an 18-game winning streak. The senior carries a 1.27 goals-against average, second-best overall, and a .934 save percentage, good for third. McKay has ten shutouts on the season and is the NCAA career record holder with 26.
Carle and the Pioneers know what is ahead of them in McKay and the Mavericks.
“They’re in this game for a reason, too. There’s not a lot of weaknesses just like there weren’t in Minnesota or Michigan,” said Carle. “We played three really good teams thus far. This will be the fourth one. I think there are some similarities with the level that they defend at with Lowell and Duluth. We’ve had success against those teams doing things a certain way.”
“I think that’s a great experience that we have coming into the game,” added Carle on Denver’s route through the tournament. “Coach Hastings and their staff and players, they’ve obviously built something really special that we respect and are excited for the challenge to play them for a banner and a big trophy come Saturday night.”
Senior Cameron Wright echoed his coach’s sentiment on the similarities between the styles of previous opponents.
“One thing that helps is our regional. They (MSU) play so much similar to Lowell and Duluth,” added the 6′-1″ winger from Newmarket, Ontario. “That’s a good starting point for us. I think just playing our game. We’ve been successful quite a bit this year. So continue to do that and hope we can get the job done.”
The question mark for the Pioneers coming in was their goaltending situation. Magnus Chrona has quieted that talk after holding the Wolverines to two goals in the semifinal. The 6′-5″ Swede has allowed five goals in the Pioneers’ previous three postseason games and only seven in their last six, including the NCHC Conference playoffs.
“It’s playoff hockey, and it can’t get better than that,” said Chrona. “I think we’re having a great time out there with each other. It’s just fun to be a part of.”
There’s a plethora of talent on each team, like Hobey Baker Hat-Trick nominee Bobby Brink and Cole Guttman on Denver and Nathan Smith and Julian Napravnik on the Mavericks. But, some other players have been chipping in in remarkable ways.
Keep an eye on Denver’s Carter Savoie. The 5″-10″ sophomore has been outstanding all season but lights out during the Pioneers’ run through the NCAA tourney. Savoie has a goal in all three games thus far, including two straight game-winning goals to keep Denver alive. When the lights are shining, Savoie is there to bask in the glow.
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Wright has been equally as important during the NCAA’s. He had the game-winner against UMass-Lowell in the opening round in Loveland, CO., and scored against the Wolverines in the third period to briefly give the Pioneers the lead.
The Mavericks have had more balance from their scoring but keep an eye out for Reggie Lutz and Ondrej Pavel. At opportune times, each has two goals in the tournament, which has been the Mavericks’ calling card. Strong defense and getting timely goals.
Each team has celebrated at one of the TD Garden ends, but only one will have the ultimate celebration. Stay tuned.