College Sports

Here’s to giving the Denver Pioneers their due — their long overdue — respect

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
The Denver Pioneers celebrate their 5-1 victory over Minnesota State in Saturday's NCAA men's hockey national championship game at TD Garden.


The University of Denver has had a legitimate beef as perhaps the most unheralded superpower in college hockey history.

That ought to change after what it pulled off in the men’s Frozen Four championship game Saturday night at TD Garden.

The Pioneers’ stunning 5-1 victory over Minnesota State delivered the program its ninth national championship, tying Michigan for the most in NCAA history. Four of their championships have been collected since 2004.

But for some reason the Pioneers, despite their 17 Frozen Four appearances, aren’t often spoken of with the historic reverence of some of the other most decorated programs. If this is a case of so-called East Coast media bias at play, then there must be a Midwest bias, too, because Denver is every bit the program Michigan is and gets half the acclaim.

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Here’s to the Pioneers getting their due after what they achieved Saturday night. They certainly deserve the praise. Few previous championships have been secured after facing such a daunting degree of difficulty deep into a championship game.

The Pioneers trailed, 1-0, in the third period, and the margin felt much larger than it was. It’s not that they couldn’t pierce Minnesota State goalie Dryden McKay, who won an NCAA-record 38 games this season, broke Michigan State legend Ryan Miller’s Division 1 record with 34 shutouts, and on Friday became the first goalie since Miller in 2001 to win the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top player.

It’s that they could barely get a shot on him. After two periods, the Pioneers had just eight shots on goal, and no more than one or two were anything more than mild scoring threats.

McKay, whose father Ross played his lone NHL game for the Hartford Whalers in 1990-91 and helped backstop the Springfield Falcons to the Calder Cup that same season, was named after that Dryden, legendary Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden. Fans around here don’t require a reminder that goalies with that name have a history of winning big games in Boston.

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But just when it looked like Dryden McKay and the stout veteran Minnesota State defense in front of him would make Sam Morton’s first-period goal stand up, the Pioneers did the unthinkable: they solved McKay. Then they solved him again. And again. Denver scored five goals in the final 15:14 of the game, including a pair of empty-netters, in one of the more remarkable shifts in momentum you will ever see.

Minnesota State had been circling Denver goalie Marcus Chroma (27 saves; not named after an NHL legend) and it seemed a matter of time before the Mavericks tallied a second and presumably clinching goal.

Instead, Denver got even, and then it got control.

Ryan Barrow slipped a rebound of defenseman Mike Benning’s shot past McKay at 15:14 of the final period, and it was a new game. Less than three minutes later, Benning ripped a one-timer from inside the left point off a feed from fellow blueliner Shai Buium, his 15th goal of the season, just as a power play expired, and suddenly the Pioneers had the lead.

At 13:34, Massimo Rizzo made it 3-1, Denver, on a nifty 2-on-1 pass from Carter Mazur, and the Pioneers poured it on with empty-netters from Brett Stapely and Cameron Wright.

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It was a staggering end for Minnesota State, which defeated in-state rival Minnesota in the semifinals Thursday, 5-1, for its 18th straight victory. And it ended up being the biggest margin of victory for Denver in the entire NCAA Tournament. The Pioneers earned one-goal victories over UMass Lowell and Minnesota-Duluth in the regional before their 3-2 win in overtime over Michigan in the semifinals.

Minnesota State, the artist formerly known as Mankato State who was playing in its first championship game, was designated as the home team, and the decibel level agreed — the Mavericks fans were out in force. But there were some locals in attendance, as evidenced by the familiar cheer when a certain recently retired Bruins goal dropped the ceremonial first puck: “TUUUUUUUKKA!”

Former Bruin David Backes, who played for Minnesota State from 2003-06, did not get quite the same vivid response when he was shown on the Garden video board.

But Denver’s fans made themselves heard in the third period, in concert with their team as it did the same. It was all so remarkable. When the stakes were highest and their chances seemed to be getting slimmer by the shift, the Pioneers pulled off a third-period comeback against one of the most statistically accomplished goalies in college hockey history.

It’s not just Pioneers fans that should be talking about this forever. Denver’s victory is an instant and important piece of college hockey lore, a spectacular championship victory for a program that, we ought to remember, has had more than a few.

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