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Denver Defense Wins Championship

Denver stifled some of the top scorers in the country to win its 10th NCAA title.

Denver celebrates its 10th NCAA men's hockey championship. No program has won more. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

ST. PAUL — Will Smith, 71 points. Cutter Gauthier, 65 points. Ryan Leonard, 60 points. Gabe Perreault, 60 points.

Four of the top-five scoring college hockey players in the entire country on one team managed to be shut out just once during the 2023-24 season. The worst part for the Boston College Eagles is that their only goalless game came in the most important one, the national championship game. Denver capitalized when Boston College couldn’t and won 2-0 to collect its 10th national championship, the first program to hit double-digit national titles.

“There’s a lot of great college hockey programs, this is a really hard event to win,” Denver coach David Carle said. “The nine title teams to prior to [now] went through a huge lift to get us here. We certainly try to attract people that want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Denver’s defensive effort was led by Matt Davis as the team’s backstop, earning his 23rd win of the season with a shutout. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Despite having those four scorers and averaging 4.46 goals per game as a team, Boston College scored zero in its quest for its sixth national championship. Fittingly, the only team that averaged a higher goals per game this season was Denver, at 4.59 goals per game.

How did Denver change the fortunes of this highly touted Boston College team that had made scoring look so easy all season long? First, the Pioneers employed a stifling defense that started in the neutral zone. Second, they had a goalie have the tournament of his life, highlighted by the save of the year. Third, they had the entire team buy in to the process of what it takes to shut down a team that wins on the back of flashy scoring and speedy offensive transitions.

“It was everything,” Carle said. “Our offense is always the most important zone to slow them down, how they break pucks out, how they transition out of their [defensive] zone, how they pull pucks back, they can really try to spread you out. … They’re a team that keeps you on your heels, and if you’re playing on your heels, you’re playing with fire.”

Boston College’s defenders continued to force stretch passes and long breakouts to forwards to streak into the Denver zone with speed. The Pioneers realized this tactic right from the outset of the game and put themselves in the right position to stifle most of those breakouts and turn it into a chance the other way for Denver.

In addition to getting sticks into the waiting areas, Denver had an extremely aggressive forecheck that often sent two players deep into BC’s end and force hurried plays that made life difficult for the Eagles attack.

Denver goaltender Matt Davis goes across the crease to make a sprawling save on Ryan Leonard (No. 9) on a BC power play in the third period. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Denver team captain McKade Webster, though, thought the game was as simple as an unreal game from their starting goaltender, Matt Davis.

“I mean, Matthew Davis,” Webster plainly said. “What a job he did. The best goalie in the world.”

For Boston College, coach Greg Brown understood his team’s ability and attempt to push its strengths in breaking the puck out, but said that Denver’s neutral zone presence was incredibly suffocating and tough to get through.

“We’re usually pretty good at breaking pucks out and having speed through the neutral zone, and they had three and four guys a lot of times above our guys right away,” Brown said. “I don’t think we generated as much speed, that’s more a credit to [the Pioneers.]”

For the chances that did get into the offensive zone for BC, as Webster said, Davis was there to meet the challenge for Denver. At no point was that challenge more difficult than the third period. Davis recorded 23 saves in the third period alone, a tie for the most saves in a single period in Frozen Four history.

The Eagles realized it was ‘do-or-die’ and poured on the shots to try and get something past Davis. He kept his positioning, didn’t give up rebounds and calmly approached the opposing offense with an expectant demeanor to frustrate the BC offense.

“Superhuman,” Carle said of Davis. “This whole run, he gave up three goals. … I agree with McKade, without him, we’re not sitting here.”

Drew has a passion for just about all things hockey. He started covering the Gophers' men's hockey team in 2016 and has been around high schools and the pros ever since. Follow his regular hockey commentary (and other nonsense) on Twitter @covedrew and on the MNCAA podcast covering the Gophers as well as the college hockey scene across Minnesota.

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