The players' faces were hidden behind mangy playoff beards and college hockey's mandatory protective cages, but Denver Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky knew what defensemen Ryan Caldwell and Matt Carle, forward Greg Keith and goalie Adam Berkhoel were thinking: They felt like Texans waiting for Santa Anna to storm into San Antonio. The Pioneers, 94 seconds from winning their first NCAA championship since 1969, clung to a 1-0 lead over Maine last Saturday and were about to face an Alamo-like siege: a five-on-three Maine power play that would become six-on-three as soon as the Black Bears could get goalie Jimmy Howard to the bench for an extra skater.
Before play resumed with a face-off in the Denver zone at Boston's FleetCenter, Gwozdecky tried to steel his penalty killers. "Coach said, 'I'm counting on you, and we're going to get through this,' " Keith, a senior right wing, said after the game. "I just kind of giggled and said, 'Yeah.' "
Those nervous titters soon turned to joyful whoops. Thanks to Berkhoel's eye-of-the-storm composure, Caldwell's command of the slot and some desperate, erratic shooting by Maine's attackers, the Pioneers, considered the weakest entry in the Frozen Four, survived one of the most frantic endings in the 57-year history of the championship game. Berkhoel turned away three shots, another clanged off a post, and the puck stayed in Denver's end nearly the entire time. "Those were the longest seconds of my life," winger Connor James, who in the first period set up center Gabe Gauthier for the game's only goal, said afterward in the Pioneers' rowdy dressing room. "Those guys are definitely buying drinks tonight." Those guys were Gauthier and junior defenseman Matt Laatsch, who watched the drama side by side from the penalty box.
With 2:09 left Laatsch went off for hooking, a gutsy call by referee Tim Kotyra considering officials are generally loath to grant power plays so late in a one-goal game. Thirty-five seconds later Gauthier, in a colossal gaffe, gloved a bouncing puck inside the Denver blue line and tossed it down the ice. Kotyra didn't hesitate: The sophomore went to the box for throwing the puck, giving Maine the two-man advantage that became even more potent when a skater replaced Howard with just over a minute left. "I was a little shocked," Maine captain Todd Jackson said of the penalty calls. "We couldn't have asked for a better chance than that."
When time finally expired, several disgusted Black Bears shattered their sticks behind their net while the Pioneers mobbed Berkhoel in his. It was another improbable win for a rambunctious squad that thinks nothing of playing through the pain of broken bones (at least three players endured them this year), not to mention the distress of dimwitted penalties, late deficits and other self-imposed obstacles. Denver finished with 27 wins, the fewest by an NCAA champion in 23 years, but the Pioneers might be the grittiest title winner ever. They earned their first Frozen Four berth in 18 years with a shocking 1-0 ambush of North Dakota, the tournament's top seed, in the West Regional final. Then, in the national semifinals last Thursday, they blitzed Minnesota-Duluth with four goals in the third period, turning a two-goal disadvantage into a 5-3 win. "Even when we were ahead against Maine, I knew something would happen," said Caldwell, a senior. "I knew it wouldn't be easy for us."
If not for Caldwell's leadership, Denver probably would have missed the 16-team national tournament for the second straight year. A self-described "wild man" when he came to the Pioneers from the junior-level U.S. Hockey League four years ago, Caldwell racked up 210 penalty minutes in his first three seasons. But he inspired his teammates with his raw emotion and was Denver's most intimidating defensive force—and Gwozdecky named him captain after last season. "It's tough to tame a mustang, but we loved the spirit and competitive juice he plays with," says the coach. "There's no question he was a leader in the locker room a year ago. But could he handle having the C on his jersey? That was the big question."
In one of his first practices as captain last fall, Caldwell fought senior forward Scott McConnell and, apparently forgetting they were close friends and roommates, broke McConnell's nose with a punch. The tussle—and the way it was immediately forgotten by the altercants—sent a message to the team. "Even in practice we play tough," says Gauthier. "If there's a confrontation, we settle it like men, even if we're friends. It shows you're out there doing a job."
Once the season started, Caldwell, who's known as Psych (short for Psycho) in his hometown of Deloraine, Manitoba, began scoring more, finishing with 15 goals after netting 11 the previous three years combined. He was also responsible in his own zone, getting named the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's defensive player of the year and, though he drew a career-high 96 penalty minutes, avoiding the immature chippiness and ill-timed infractions that had marked his game. "I told the guys to play hard and play smart," says Caldwell. "It was up to me not to be a hypocritical captain."
He also gave the team an emotional lift by being college hockey's version of Monty Python's Black Knight, who disregards amputations as mere flesh wounds. The 6' 3" Caldwell missed just two games despite suffering a concussion, a broken wrist and sprained medial collateral ligaments in both knees. He rarely practiced late in the season and, because he was forced to curtail his lifting regimen, his weight dropped from 195 to 180 over the course of the year.
Caldwell held things together after the dark months of December and January, when Denver slogged through a 1-4-1 stretch and blew a six-goal lead in an 8-7 loss to Minnesota State, Mankato. Against that same team in February, Caldwell exploded for a hat trick and two assists in a two-game sweep that turned the Pioneers around.