The University of Denver Pioneers were all business during Wednesday’s media day at the Frozen Four. Denver head coach, Jim Montgomery, has preached all season that his team focuses on “the process.” A birth in their first National Championship game since 2005 was at stake, and standing in their way was a familiar set of faces in the No. 2 North Dakota Fighting Hawks. There would be no let-down, or big-stage jitters, from this particular group of young-men vying for the chance to forever etch their names in the lengthy history of Denver Pioneer hockey.

When these two rivals eventually took to the ice on Thursday evening, in front of an official sold-out crowd of 18,037, the game epitomized a National semi-final showdown between two top teams in the nation. The players from both teams left it all out on the ice — bodies were thrown into hits, as well as into shots, doing everything possible to give their teams the edge.

As Senior captain Grant Arnold told the media, “We came out, and we played hard.”

But after 59 minutes of back and forth action, it was ultimately the Fighting Hawks who would make the last of the game’s big plays and walk away with a hard-fought 4-2 victory — keeping a potent Denver offense at bay here in Tampa, ending both Denver’s season and their National Championship dreams.

When most teams meet in the Frozen Four they aren’t as familiar as Denver and North Dakota, so there’s typically a feeling-out period, both for the players and the coaches. But this game skipped right over that, and the talent-level of these two teams was immediately on display from the onset. Denver controlled the possession time for the majority of the first period, aided by two power-play opportunities, but only managed four shots on goal, while failing to establish a true net-front presence.

Montgomery put it this way: “The toughest thing about North Dakota … they give you the outside, and they take [the middle] away really well.

“If you don’t have a middle-lane drive presence, it’s hard to back them off.”

The Fighting Hawks uncharacteristically spent most of the period in their own defensive zone, other than four odd-man rush opportunities that each resulted in a shot, but no goals.

“That’s where we need to make cleaner plays,” Montgomery eluded to after the game.

Eventually, these mishaps allowed North Dakota’s top-line, dubbed the “CBS” line, to open up the scoring at 1:03 into the second period, when Drake Caggiula and Brock Boesser found themselves on yet another odd-man rush opportunity against a lone Pioneer defender. Boesser carrying the puck up the right boards, found Caggiula streaking down the slot, and Caggiula didn’t disappoint the majority Fighting Hawk fans in attendance by beating Pioneer sophomore goaltender, Tanner Jaillet, to the stick side.

A little over five minutes later, at 6:15 of the second period, Caggiula again found the back of the net, giving North Dakota a 2-0 lead. This shift was one of the rare opportunities on the night where fans were treated to seeing North Dakota’s “CBS” line on the ice at the same time as Denver’s “Pacific Rim” trio. Unfortunately for Denver and their fans, a defensive zone turnover by Trevor Moore allowed the “CBS” line to claim victory in that battle.

North Dakota would kill off a third penalty midway through the second period and ride their comfortable two-goal lead into the second intermission. In the third period, the ice finally tilted in Denver’s favor — changing the game’s landscape even more than the physical difference between Grand Forks and Denver.

Arnold provided his insight into Denver’s mindset and how it allowed Denver to shift the game’s momentum: “We’re never going to give up … That’s just Denver hockey.”

Nearly three minutes into the final stanza, it seemed as though the puck had yet to leave the North Dakota defensive zone. However, despite maintaining sustained pressure, the Pioneers had not manifested that pressure into shots-on-goal. That all changed at the 2:50 mark, though, following a North Dakota icing, when Matt Marcenew would win a face-off in the Fighting Hawk zone. Arnold then knocked the puck back to Colorado Avalanche draft pick Will Butcher who then beat a screened Cam Johnson with a shot high to his blocker side — cutting the lead in half, and breathing life into a Pioneer team that could easily have been dejected at this point.

Eight minutes later at 10:51 into the period, after killing their only penalty on the night, Denver’s Matt Van Voorhies, a native of Grand Forks, ND put some angst into the members of his old community when he tallied the tying goal that found it’s way through Johnson’s legs after deflecting off of his defenseman’s stick.

“Van Voorhies made a great rush … and got a little bit of puck luck,” Butcher said of his teammate’s play.

Denver would then take to the Power-play for the final time of the evening, but just as it had not just all night (0-for-4) but all season (0-for-24), would fail to score against a staunch North Dakota penalty-kill.

“They’re a really good penalty killing team….I wish we made a couple more plays, but we didn’t,” Montgomery said about the special teams action.

Shortly after that penalty kill, Denver nearly made one of those plays , when West Regional MVP Blake Hillman, sprung a streaking Danton Heinen on what looked to be a potential game-changing breakaway, but Heinen was forced to settle for a long shot on NoDak’s Johnson after two defensemen quickly closed in on him.

That play proved to be Denver’s last hope for moving on to title game, because with exactly one-minute remaining on the clock Denver would take a costly icing. With the game on the line, Montgomery would call Denver’s time-out, giving his players a much needed rest, but also giving North Dakota head coach Brad Berry an opportunity to draw up a play for the ever dangerous “CBS” line.

Montgomery sent out his four seniors, giving them the opportunity to make the final plays necessary to send them on, but an unlucky bounce off the face-off, and the puck found it’s way onto the stick of an unmarked Nick Schmaltz of North Dakota right in front of Denver’s net. Schmaltz would beat Jaillet with a game-winning backhand sending the Fighting Hawks into Saturday’s National Championship game versus the #1 ranked Quinnipiac Bobcats.

Montgomery perfectly summed it up in the team’s post game press conference. “It was a great college hockey game. It’s what we expected. When North Dakota and Denver play, it’s great hockey.”

“You’ve got to tip your hat to them.”

Denver finished the year (25-10-6), but despite a second-half run for the ages (18-3-4), they just couldn’t win that coveted last game of the season.

With only four seniors graduating, and a young dynamic core, the success this team had should roll right over into next season, so expect to see these Pioneers back in this position again as they have unfinished business to handle.