CHICAGO — Top-line left winger Jarid Lukosevicius did a perfect job of following his coach’s lead. The result was a NCAA hockey title for Denver.
Lukosevicius had the first title game hat trick in 24 years Saturday, sparking Denver to its eighth NCAA hockey crown as the Pioneers beat Minnesota Duluth 3-2 in the Frozen Four championship.
Lukovicius, a sophomore from British Columbia, scored three goals in a 7:39 span and the Pioneers (33-7-4) got 38 saves from goalie Tanner Jaillett, to win the NCAA title for the first time since 2005. The Pioneers survived a furious rally in the third period after Denver defenseman Tariq Hammond suffered what appeared to be broken ankle and left the game on a stretcher.
Lukosevicius’ hat trick was the first in a national finale since Denver coach Jim Montgomery had a trio of goals for the University Maine in the 1993 title game when the Black Bears defeated Lake Superior State 5-4. Lukosevicius was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
“I didn’t know that was the first hat trick (since 1993) but I’m glad to be a part of both, and I’m glad we won the championship,” said Montgomery, the fifth person in NCAA hockey history to win NCAA titles as a player and coach.
Minnesota Duluth (28-7-7) got goals from Alex Iafallo and Riley Tufte along with 25 saves from Hunter Miska, but saw its eight-game winning streak snapped.
It was the completion of a perfect weekend for the Pioneers after Montgomery was named the national coach of the year, Jaillett was named the game’s top goalie and defenseman Will Butcher captured the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top player.
After a scoreless first period, Denver took the lead in the opening minutes of the second when Lukosevicius tipped a Michael Davies shot that beat Miska high on the stick side. On the next shift, Troy Terry carried the puck to the goalmouth with and Lukosevicius tapped it in from the top of the crease. The two goals in 16 seconds set a Frozen Four record for one player.
Barely two minutes later, the Bulldogs answered on their first power play of the game. Joey Anderson’s pass to the top of the crease was re-directed in by Iafallo, cutting the Denver lead in half. It was Iafallo’s team-leading 21st goal of the season.
But Lukosevicius completed the hat trick before the end of the second, firing a low shot through a crowd in front of Miska. It was the first career three-goal game for Lukosevicius, who said Montgomery’s advice didn’t involve scoring goals.
“He just told me to stick with the process and we did,” Lukosevicius joked, noting that he’s not used to being in the spotlight. “You guys are asking me hard questions. This is my first press conference.”
The Pioneers, who had scored 17 goals in their first three NCAA tournament games, started like a team seeking a blowout, controlling play while recording the first eight shots on goal. Minnesota Duluth needed more than six minutes to record a shot on Jaillet.
The Denver dominance included an early rush to the net where right winger Logan O’Connor’s shot hit the left post, and his swipe at the rebound hit the left post.
“Our guys looked a little tentative, a little nervous,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “Some of those shots weren’t too dangerous, but they were coming. You have to take care of the puck and if you make soft plays, they’re going the other way with it in a hurry.”
The Bulldogs woke up and made a push of their own, but the opening period ended scoreless with Denver holding a 13-10 advantage in shots.
The game was stopped for several minutes in the third period when Hammond went hard into the boards and was taken off on a stretcher. The delay seemed to swing the momentum to the Bulldogs side, and they peppered Jaillett for the next several minutes, but could not get a goal until just over five minutes remained and Tufte made it 3-2 with a tap-in from the top of the crease.
“We knew they were going to come with a push,” Butcher said. “It was the last game of the season, so everyone is going to come with a push in that situation. We just stuck with it. Maybe didn’t play our best period but we relied on [Jaillett] to make some saves.”
The Bulldogs pressured Denver again for the final two minutes with Miska on the bench, but could not pull even.
“We just keep pushing,” Bulldogs captain Dominic Toninato said. “The talk in the locker room was go out there and have our best period and give ourselves a chance. I couldn’t be prouder of the guys. They battled and gave their all.”
Although not a sellout, the crowd of 19,783 at the United Center was the largest for a Frozen Four title match since 2010 when the event was held at Ford Field in Detroit and more than 37,000 witnessed the championship game.