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Pioneers! O Pioneers! Frozen Four longshot Denver withstood heavy pressure in a frenetic final minute to beat Maine and win its first national title in 35 years

April 19, 2004
April 19, 2004

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April 19, 2004

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Pioneers! O Pioneers! Frozen Four longshot Denver withstood heavy pressure in a frenetic final minute to beat Maine and win its first national title in 35 years

The players' faces were hidden behind mangy playoff beards and
college hockey's mandatory protective cages, but Denver Pioneers
coach George Gwozdecky knew what defensemen Ryan Caldwell and
Matt Carle, forward Greg Keith and goalie Adam Berkhoel were
thinking: They felt like Texans waiting for Santa Anna to storm
into San Antonio. The Pioneers, 94 seconds from winning their
first NCAA championship since 1969, clung to a 1-0 lead over
Maine last Saturday and were about to face an Alamo-like siege:
a five-on-three Maine power play that would become six-on-three
as soon as the Black Bears could get goalie Jimmy Howard to the
bench for an extra skater.

This is an article from the April 19, 2004 issue Original Layout

Before play resumed with a face-off in the Denver zone at
Boston's FleetCenter, Gwozdecky tried to steel his penalty
killers. "Coach said, 'I'm counting on you, and we're going to
get through this,'" Keith, a senior right wing, said after the
game. "I just kind of giggled and said, 'Yeah.'"

Those nervous titters soon turned to joyful whoops. Thanks to
Berkhoel's eye-of-the-storm composure, Caldwell's command of the
slot and some desperate, erratic shooting by Maine's attackers,
the Pioneers, considered the weakest entry in the Frozen Four,
survived one of the most frantic endings in the 57-year history
of the championship game. Berkhoel turned away three shots,
another clanged off a post, and the puck stayed in Denver's end
nearly the entire time. "Those were the longest seconds of my
life," winger Connor James, who in the first period set up center
Gabe Gauthier for the game's only goal, said afterward in the
Pioneers' rowdy dressing room. "Those guys are definitely buying
drinks tonight." Those guys were Gauthier and junior defenseman
Matt Laatsch, who watched the drama side by side from the penalty
box.

With 2:09 left Laatsch went off for hooking, a gutsy call by
referee Tim Kotyra considering officials are generally loath to
grant power plays so late in a one-goal game. Thirty-five seconds
later Gauthier, in a colossal gaffe, gloved a bouncing puck
inside the Denver blue line and tossed it down the ice. Kotyra
didn't hesitate: The sophomore went to the box for throwing the
puck, giving Maine the two-man advantage that became even more
potent when a skater replaced Howard with just over a minute
left. "I was a little shocked," Maine captain Todd Jackson said
of the penalty calls. "We couldn't have asked for a better chance
than that."

When time finally expired, several disgusted Black Bears
shattered their sticks behind their net while the Pioneers mobbed
Berkhoel in his. It was another improbable win for a rambunctious
squad that thinks nothing of playing through the pain of broken
bones (at least three players endured them this year), not to
mention the distress of dimwitted penalties, late deficits and
other self-imposed obstacles. Denver finished with 27 wins, the
fewest by an NCAA champion in 23 years, but the Pioneers might be
the grittiest title winner ever. They earned their first Frozen
Four berth in 18 years with a shocking 1-0 ambush of North
Dakota, the tournament's top seed, in the West Regional final.
Then, in the national semifinals last Thursday, they blitzed
Minnesota-Duluth with four goals in the third period, turning a
two-goal disadvantage into a 5-3 win. "Even when we were ahead
against Maine, I knew something would happen," said Caldwell, a
senior. "I knew it wouldn't be easy for us."

If not for Caldwell's leadership, Denver probably would have
missed the 16-team national tournament for the second straight
year. A self-described "wild man" when he came to the Pioneers
from the junior-level U.S. Hockey League four years ago, Caldwell
racked up 210 penalty minutes in his first three seasons. But he
inspired his teammates with his raw emotion and was Denver's most
intimidating defensive force--and Gwozdecky named him captain
after last season. "It's tough to tame a mustang, but we loved
the spirit and competitive juice he plays with," says the coach.
"There's no question he was a leader in the locker room a year
ago. But could he handle having the C on his jersey? That was the
big question."

In one of his first practices as captain last fall, Caldwell
fought senior forward Scott McConnell and, apparently forgetting
they were close friends and roommates, broke McConnell's nose
with a punch. The tussle--and the way it was immediately
forgotten by the altercants--sent a message to the team. "Even in
practice we play tough," says Gauthier. "If there's a
confrontation, we settle it like men, even if we're friends. It
shows you're out there doing a job."

Once the season started, Caldwell, who's known as Psych (short
for Psycho) in his hometown of Deloraine, Manitoba, began scoring
more, finishing with 15 goals after netting 11 the previous three
years combined. He was also responsible in his own zone, getting
named the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's defensive
player of the year and, though he drew a career-high 96 penalty
minutes, avoiding the immature chippiness and ill-timed
infractions that had marked his game. "I told the guys to play
hard and play smart," says Caldwell. "It was up to me not to be a
hypocritical captain."

He also gave the team an emotional lift by being college hockey's
version of Monty Python's Black Knight, who disregards
amputations as mere flesh wounds. The 6'3" Caldwell missed just
two games despite suffering a concussion, a broken wrist and
sprained medial collateral ligaments in both knees. He rarely
practiced late in the season and, because he was forced to
curtail his lifting regimen, his weight dropped from 195 to 180
over the course of the year.

Caldwell held things together after the dark months of December
and January, when Denver slogged through a 1-4-1 stretch and blew
a six-goal lead in an 8-7 loss to Minnesota State, Mankato.
Against that same team in February, Caldwell exploded for a hat
trick and two assists in a two-game sweep that turned the
Pioneers around.

His leadership was again called upon last weekend. On Friday
evening Gwozdecky met with Caldwell and his assistant captains to
tell them that senior forward Lukas Dora, who'd scored the
game-winner against Minnesota-Duluth, had violated a team rule.
(Denver refused to divulge the transgression.) After consulting
with the captains, Gwozdecky suspended Dora, the team's
third-leading scorer, for the final. "It was a tough decision,"
said Caldwell after Saturday's game. "But we're a team here, and
it was something we felt had to be done."

Before being suspended, Dora, nettlesome on the ice and mouthy in
the dressing room, told anyone who would listen, "We shouldn't
have any problem with Maine." But the Pioneers did. The Black
Bears kept Denver on its heels for most of the match, and Maine
center Derek Damon scored a first-period goal that was disallowed
because a teammate's skate was in the crease. Under heavy
pressure from Maine, the Pioneers provided magnificent protection
for Berkhoel: Of the 51 shots the Black Bears attempted, 27 were
blocked by body-sacrificing forwards or defensemen. Said Maine
coach Tim Whitehead, "Their ability to block shots was the
difference in the game."

So was that majestic last stand, which clinched the third shutout
in title-game history and returned to prominence a program with a
rich but musty tradition: five NCAA titles from 1958 to '69, and
an alumni list that includes distinguished former NHL players
Craig Patrick, Glenn Anderson, Kevin Dineen and the late Keith
Magnuson.

An hour after the game most of the Pioneers had showered and
donned suits in preparation for a long prowl through the Boston
night, but Gauthier was still wobbling around the room in his
skates, stick in hand, sweat-stained jersey on his back. Someone
reminded him that the game was over, but Gauthier didn't seem to
care. "Hey, this is great," he said. "I don't want this moment to
end."

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER (CALDWELL) A CHANGED MAN In his first year as Pioneers captain, Caldwell cutdown on bad penalties and picked up his scoring.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ELSA/GETTY IMAGES PAR-TAY! With their 1-0 victory in the final last Saturdaynight, the Pioneers finished an uneven season on the ultimatehigh.