The Denver Pioneers’ bid for an ninth national title and a third straight trip to the Frozen Four came to a anti-climactic end Sunday night, as #2 DU fell 5-1 to #1 Ohio State in the Midwest Regional Final in Allentown, PA.
The loss marks the end of another very successful season for the Pioneers, but is one that will undoubtedly sting given that many had penned Denver as the favorite to repeat as national champions before the season. Those expectations were amplified after Denver got hot at the right time by winning the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, making the lopsided loss to the Big Ten runners-up all the more surprising.
From the drop of the puck, it was clear that time and space would be much harder to come by for Denver compared to the Pioneers’ easy 5-1 win over Penn State in the regional semifinal. Play went end-to-end, but Ohio State appeared content to keep puck play on the outside in both zones in an effort to neutralize DU’s offensive weapons.
Denver got an opportunity with the man advantage at 13:36 after Dakota Joshua, one of the key members of the Buckeyes’ top-ranked penalty kill unit, was whistled for slashing. With Joshua in the box, Denver managed a few opportunities but could not break through. The first period ended with Denver holding a slight 8-6 advantage in shots on net.
Play kept to the same choppy pace as the second period got underway, with momentum up for grabs. Unfortunately for Denver, it was the Buckeyes who wrested control of the game. In the fourth minute of the period, Joshua posted up in front of a partially-screened Tanner Jaillet and got his backhand on a loose puck in a scrum in front, breaking the scoreless tie.
The goal acted as a jolt of energy for the Buckeyes for the remainder of the period. Troy Terry threatened to break the Buckeyes’ stranglehold and was able to get OSU goaltender Sean Romeo out of position, but could not connect with any of his teammates with a centering pass.
The play led to a rush the other way, which Ohio State turned into a 2-0 lead with a goal from Kevin Miller at 15:31. Christian Lampasso put the puck on Miller’s stick with a perfect pass from behind the net, helping Miller catch Jaillet slightly out of position. The score held at 2-0 going into the intermission, giving DU 20 minutes to come back or see their season end. An even count of 9 shots on goal each brought the overall tally to 17-15 in OSU’s favor.
Denver was gifted an opportunity to start a comeback right away in the third period, as Freddy Gerard was called for tripping just one minute into the frame. Despite a few good looks at Romeo, OSU’s penalty kill held off the pressure.
Despite desperately needing offensive zone pressure to spark a comeback, Jaillet was forced to make several big saves to keep DU within striking distance. But Jaillet couldn’t hold back the tide forever, as Ohio State turned another offensive zone turnover by DU into a goal just before the midway mark of the period. Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Tanner Laczynski found Matt Joyaux streaking a step ahead of the DU defense for Joyaux’s second goal of the season.
The third goal, along with an injury to freshman Kohen Olischefski, appeared to finally wake the Pioneers up. At the end of one of their only long stretches of offensive zone time throughout the game, Tyson McLellan ended Romeo’s perfect night at the 11:21 mark in his second game back from an extended absence due to injury. McLellan hauled in a pass from freshman Ian Mitchell, his fourth assist of the tournament.
Hopes of a last-ditch comeback were all but extinguished when, just 30 seconds later, Miller found a sweet spot behind the Denver defense and beat Jaillet on the backdoor for this second goal of the contest.
DU head coach Jim Montgomery opted to pull Jaillet with over six minutes to play, putting him back in net for neutral zone face-offs. That decision backfired almost immediately, as OSU’s Mason Jobst hit the empty net from 175 feet away at 14:16, bringing the score to 5-1.
With the end of Denver’s quest for a repeat title, the program enters into a period of great uncertainty. Although the team has just four seniors, its five NHL draft picks could all choose to sign entry-level deals and leave school early. This option seems especially likely for veterans who have proven themselves at the NCAA level — Henrik Borgstrom, Dylan Gambrell and Terry.
One of those four seniors is Jaillet, who saw the end to his historically successful college career. Jaillet will leave the program with 82 wins across four seasons, tying current DU athletic director Ron Grahame for most in school history.
The game rounded out the Frozen Four field, which will include three Big Ten teams. Ohio State will face the lone non-Big Ten representative, Minnesota-Duluth out of the NCHC, in one semifinal. The winner will go on to play for the national title against the winner of Notre Dame-Michigan.