Denver clinches spot in NCAA tournament

JESS MYERS Associated Press Published:

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- For a team used to playing in the NCAA tournament, a sixth-place regular season finish in a new eight-team conference could've sunk Denver's season.

Instead, the Pioneers are again playing their best in March.

Zac Larraza and Emil Romig scored third-period goals, lifting Denver to a 4-3 win Saturday over Miami of Ohio to complete an improbable run to by the Pioneers to a seventh straight berth in the NCAA tournament by winning the inaugural National Collegiate Hockey Conference tournament.

Throughout an up-and-down first season under head coach Jim Montgomery, players said they never lost faith they'd reach the NCHC semifinals after having to travel for the first round of the league's playoffs.

"With the group of guys we have, we didn't think this was far away at all," said Larraza. "You saw how hard we worked this weekend and last weekend. We knew what we had to do and we put our minds to it."

The Pioneers (20-15-6) led 2-0 late in the second period before Anthony Louis and Sean Kuraly scored for Miami three minutes apart to tie the game. The RedHawks, who finished in last place in the NCHC, upset league champion St. Cloud State last weekend in two games and second-place North Dakota Friday in the semifinals. But they still needed to win this to extend their season.

"We weren't going to quit, but we weren't good enough all night," said RedHawks coach Rico Blasi. "Indicative of the way our year went, every time we made a mistake, it cost us."

The Pioneers dominated long stretches of the first period when Miami (15-20-3) seemed spent. Nolan Zajac scored and assisted on a goal by Daniel Doremus, the tournament's MVP, to make it 2-0.

After the RedHawks rallied to tie, Larraza scored early in the third period and Romig gave Denver a 4-2 lead. Blasi pulled goalie Ryan McKay late and got another goal from Louis with 93 seconds left to increase the tension at Target Center, but they didn't get another shot past Pioneers goalie Sam Brittain, who had 23 saves for the win.

McKay stopped 24 shots.

"Miami adjusted. They're a good coaching staff and changed some things that didn't allow us to carry the puck over the blue line," said Montgomery, who hired last spring after the school did not renew the contract of George Gwozdecky, who had coached Denver for 19 seasons and won a pair of NCAA titles there. "Five on five, I thought we were the superior team tonight."