CHICAGO — The University of Denver hockey team, perched atop the national polls for months, will play on Saturday for a chance to prove the voters right.
Denver, coached by former University of Maine star Jim Montgomery, jumped out to an early lead and never looked back on Thursday night, beating Notre Dame 6-1 in the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals and advancing to the national championship game for the first time in more than a decade.
Dylan Gambrell had a pair of goals while Emil Romig, Henrik Borgstrom, Tariq Hammond and Evan Ritt each scored once for Denver, which was helped by 16 saves from goalie Tanner Jaillet.
“I don’t really know what to say,” Pioneers coach Jim Montgomery said, marveling at what his team did from start to finish. “I’m just amazed at the effort our team produced in a big-time game against a really, really good college hockey team.”
The Pioneers (32-7-4) will face National Collegiate Hockey Conference rival Minnesota Duluth in the title game at 8 p.m. (ESPN-TV). In the only regular-season meetings, the teams split a two-game series in Denver in December.
Montgomery was a Hobey Baker Award finalist, a two-time All-American and the UMaine’s all-time leading scorer with 301 points. He captained the 1992-1993 team to a 42-1-2 season and the school’s first NCAA championship.
Montgomery, one of only three players who had his jersey retired at Maine, went on to have a 12-year pro career that included 122 games in the NHL with five teams.
His coaching career began in his final pro season with the Missouri River Otters of the United Hockey League in 2004-2005. He was a player and an assistant coach.
The next year, he served as a volunteer assistant coach under the highly successful Jeff Jackson at Notre Dame. After a year at Notre Dame, he became a full-time assistant at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
Four years later, he left to become the general manager-head coach of the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States (Junior) Hockey League.
The Fighting Saints won the Clark Cup championship, awarded to the playoff titlists, in two of his three seasons and he was recognized as the league’s top general manager in those two years. His three teams went a combined 118-45 during the regular season.
When the Denver and University of Maine jobs opened up after the 2012-2013 season, Montgomery was interested in both of them, but Denver had more to offer him.
On Thursday night, Notre Dame (23-12-5), playing less than two hours from its campus, had an impressive throng of fans on hand at United Center but gave the crowd little to cheer about. Irish goalie Cal Petersen finished with 36 saves, and Cam Morrison scored a power-play goal in the late stages, denying Jaillet his first shutout of the season.
As opposed to the first semifinal, in which Minnesota Duluth beat Harvard in the final half-minute of the game, the Pioneers had little interest in drama in the opening period. They stormed to a 2-0 lead on goals by Romig and Borgstrom, outshooting the Irish 13-3 and controlling play for long stretches.
The goal came after Petersen stopped a wraparound attempt by defenseman Will Butcher. Borgstrom popped in the rebound.
“You have to give a lot of credit to our forwards. I think our forecheck really dominated tonight and ate them up,” Butcher said. “Whenever we have a good forecheck going, we seem to get the puck back a lot more.”
Denver won the Midwest Region, beating Michigan Tech and Penn State.
Minnesota Duluth advance by edging Harvard 2-1 in the earlier semifinal.
Alex Iafallo’s goal with 26.6 seconds remaining in the third period was the difference-maker for the Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs got a goal and an assist from Joey Anderson along with 39 saves from goalie Hunter Miska while advancing to the national championship game for the first time since 2011.
“We’re a really composed team and as the game wears on we play a really good style that allows us to maintain our game,” Anderson said. “We’re able to finish chances when we get them and that’s the way we’ve done it lately.”
“Every bit of ice was hard to get out there. I give Minnesota Duluth a lot of credit for that,” Harvard coach Ted Donato said. His team’s 40 shots were the most the Bulldogs faced this season. “Neither team had a lot of zone time. I think both teams had good chances but certainly in the first half of the game I don’t think we were able to get out of our zone as cleanly we would’ve liked.”