Draft-eligible Paul Stastny notched two goals and an assist in the University of Denver’s 4-1 win over the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux, the Pioneers’ second consecutive and seventh overall NCAA National Championship on Saturday night at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus.
University of Denver freshman goaltender Peter Mannino was sensational throughout the game, stopping 44 of 45 North Dakota shots to earn a berth on the All-Tournament as well as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player honor. The Pioneers players had no shortage of praise for their netminder.
“He’s unbelievable. That kid just came up huge for us,” said junior defenseman Brett Skinner (VAN). “He made some huge saves at the right time for us. Just the season he’s had, I can’t say enough good things about him. He and Glenn (Fisher) set us up all season to be in this position. He’s just exceptional.”
“He’s just been unbelievable for us,” said junior Gabe Gauthier. “Some of those saves he made tonight we’re just incredible.”
North Dakota came out banging bodies and getting several quality chances on goal. Things got heated early when North Dakota junior defenseman Matt Greene (EDM) and Denver sophomore Adrian Veideman got into a shoving match that resulted in matching roughing minors for each player about two minutes into the game.
The Pioneers didn’t register their first shot on goal until just over six minutes into the game. When they did, they made it count. At the 6:15 mark, senior <B>Jeff Drummond got Denver on the board first. Gauthier brought the puck into the UND zone, but after losing possession of the puck in the high slot area, senior Kevin Ulanski picked it up and fired a low shot at the UND net that ended up bouncing off of the skate of UND sophomore defenseman Matt Smaby (TB). Drummond, who was parked just outside the crease area, made sure the puck went in for the score. Gauthier and Ulanski drew the assists on the goal.
After the goal, the momentum began to shift in the Pioneers favor. Denver began to slowly chip away at the seemingly impenetrable North Dakota defense and their hard-hitting attack game.
At the 9:52 mark, freshman Travis Zajac (NJ) notched his 20th goal of the season on the power play to get the equalizer for North Dakota. Senior Nick Fuher sent a low shot from the point towards the Denver net. Zajac, who was fighting off a Denver defender in front of the net, re-directed Fuher’s shot that went five-hole on Mannino for the score. Fuher and sophomore Drew Stafford (BUF) drew the assists.
Around the 15:30 mark of the period, Mannino made the best save of the night. North Dakota had been putting on some tremendous pressure, getting off several outstanding chances that forced Mannino to make some acrobatic saves. While on his back, Mannino somehow kept sophomore Erik Fabian’s shot from going into the net. After the save, there was some question of whether the puck was over the goal line as Mannino was making the terrific glove save. After the play was reviewed, the officials ruled that the puck had not crossed the goal line.
The period ended a bit prematurely due to a glass breakage earlier in the period. After the customary intermission time, the teams came back out to play the remaining six seconds of the opening stanza before the goaltenders switched ends for the second period.
The period began well for the Fighting Sioux. The UND line combination of sophomore Chris Porter (CHI) and seniors Rory McMahon and Colby Genoway generated some outstanding scoring chances but Mannino was there to shut the door on them. The Pioneers were guilty of turnovers and odd-man rushes in this period that forced their goaltender to bail them out on several occasions. Nevertheless, Denver hung in there and continued to play their game.
At the 10:08 mark, Stastny put Denver ahead for good with the first of his two goals on the night. Ulanski launched a slapper from the right point towards the North Dakota net. Stastny then redirected the shot from the slot area that beat North Dakota sophomore goaltender Jordan Parise top shelf for the score. Ulanski and senior defenseman Matt Laatsch drew the assists.
From there, the momentum really began to shift in Denver’s favor as the Fighting Sioux got away from their physical game, enabling the Pioneers to utilize their speed to their advantage. As the Pioneers began dictating the pace of the game, it forced Parise to come up with some stellar saves of his own to keep the game from becoming a blowout by period’s end.
The Fighting Sioux found themselves behind a goal coming into the third period, which didn’t bode well for them due to Denver’s exceptional ability to maintain leads coming into the final period. The frustration level of North Dakota began to show around the three-minute mark when junior Mike Prpich took a swipe at Mannino before getting into a heated exchange with Denver sophomore Michael Handza. The result was matching unsportsmanlike conduct minors to Prpich and Handza.
The power play would prove to be quite effective once again for the Pioneers at the 8:19 mark, when Stastny notched his second goal of the game that came courtesy of a terrific individual effort by sophomore defenseman Matt Carle (SJ). Carle brought the puck into the North Dakota zone, and then proceeded to split the defense before passing off the puck to Stastny. Stastny launched a one-timer that beat Parise for the score. Carle and junior defenseman Skinner (VAN) had the assists.
Denver did an excellent job of sticking with their game plan throughout the contest. Despite the physical play of the Fighting Sioux, particularly in the first period, the Pioneers maintained their composure. They showed some tremendous patience throughout the game that would pay off in the end. With the score 3-1 and time winding down in regulation, the dejection of the Fighting Sioux became increasingly more evident.
With the North Dakota net empty in favor of an extra attacker, Gauthier would put the frosting on the cake for Denver at the 19:23 mark with his 26th goal of the season. He got a long pass from Stastny before depositing the puck into the empty net for the score. Stastny drew the lone assist.
After the game, the all-tournament team was announced. North Dakota freshman Zajac (NJ) was the lone non-Denver player to make the tournament team. He joined Denver freshmen Stastny and Mannino, sophomore defenseman Carle (SJ), and juniors Gauthier and defenseman Skinner (VAN) on the all-tournament team. Mannino, to no real surprise, was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
With everything that the team had to endure this season to get to the National Championship game, it was a very bitter pill to swallow for the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, particularly for their nine departing seniors that include defenseman Andy Schneider (PIT) and forward Rory McMahon.
“We wanted to leave our mark on this North Dakota team. I think we proved to a lot of people that we could compete for 60 minutes,” said Schneider at the North Dakota press conference after the game.
“Coach Hakstol took a lot of heat this year and we all stuck by him,” McMahon added. “Obviously losing your last game is disappointing. We played our hearts out and that’s all we can ask for and all we can do.”
The overwhelming elation of winning a National Championship had, to some degree, varying effects on the Denver Pioneers team. For players such as Gauthier, the victory was sweeter the second time around.
“It’s definitely a better feeling than the first one because it’s so much harder to win the second one. We had a bull’s eye on our chest this year and every team had it in for us and that’s what made it tougher,” Gauthier said after the game. “We wanted to create a new identity. We wanted to work harder, smarter and more together.”
For Carle, the victory was still a blur. “It really hasn’t sunk in at all yet. We’ll go home and celebrate and maybe it’ll totally sink in by the summer,” Carle said smiling after the game. “It’s hard to compare the (National Championship) games between last year and this year, but it doesn’t get any better than this. It’s just awesome.”
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