CHICAGO -- An agonizing silence of sadness and finality engulfed Denver's losing locker room at the Frozen Four a year ago. Players found it difficult to process what had just transpired on the ice. Only minutes earlier, the Pioneers appeared on their way to overtime in a national men's hockey semifinal, one big play from reaching the coveted title game.
Then, in an instant, the dream vanished. Denver surrendered two goals in the final 56.8 seconds of regulation and absorbed a 4-2 loss against North Dakota. Back in the locker room, nobody could muster the strength to say a word.
"It was probably the quietest I've ever heard a locker room before in my career," Denver defenseman Will Butcher said.
"I just remember it being the worst feeling ever," forward Dylan Gambrell said.
"It was devastating," goaltender Tanner Jaillet added.
That overwhelming sense of disappointment remained embedded in the minds of each returning player. What went unsaid in the confines of the room that night required little rehashing over the coming months. This much, players knew deep in their core: Denver had been oh-so-close. And with so much talent coming back, nothing would stop the Pioneers from taking their journey all the way to the final night of the 2017 Frozen Four.
That's exactly where No. 1 overall seed Denver (32-7-4) finds itself as it prepares to play second-seeded Minnesota-Duluth (28-6-7) on Saturday in Chicago's United Center for the national championship (8 p.m. ET, ESPN / WatchESPN App). All the effort to return to the Frozen Four has led to a team as potent on both ends of the ice as any in the country. Now, the Pioneers are one step from realizing their dream.
"We've been working to get back here all year long," Denver forward Emil Romig said. "Ever since we lost, we wanted to do whatever we can to get back here, and we've worked really hard to accomplish that. And being back here definitely feels great. But we've got to finish it off."
Denver's defense has been exceptional all season. The Pioneers entered the Frozen Four leading the nation in team defense, allowing a paltry 1.81 goals per game. But it's the offensive depth from all four lines that has really overwhelmed opponents during the NCAA tournament.
Five different players scored Denver's first five goals during its 6-1 rout of Notre Dame in the Frozen Four semifinal Thursday night. The Pioneers have outscored their opponents 17-6 during this NCAA tournament, tallying at least five goals in all three games. The last team to accomplish such a feat was Boston College in 2006.
After his team's loss Thursday, Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson noted that Denver "seemed like a team on a mission."
The Pioneers certainly have carried themselves in a different manner this season, treating each postseason game like a business trip. They learned the value of appreciating each possession from the Frozen Four defeat last year. In that contest, Denver was called for icing, lost a faceoff, and then immediately surrendered the game-deciding goal.
"All the details matter," Denver forward Matt Marcinew said. "That was our season in one play."
The addition of freshman sensation Henrik Borgstrom has bolstered Denver's offense this season. Borgstrom, a 2016 first-round NHL draft pick of the Florida Panthers, is tied for the team lead with 43 points. Troy Terry has 43 points, Gambrell 41 and Butcher 37.
Despite all that skill, the Pioneers needed to learn how to play together again. Players pinpointed the second week of the season as a turning point. Denver opened the season with consecutive losses to Ohio State and Boston College. The Pioneers then entered a weekend matchup against powerhouse Boston University and swept both games -- the start of an unbeaten streak that lasted nearly two months.
"BU had, like, 10 first-round picks," Bergstrom said. "It was a huge matchup. To be able to come out as a winner and get a sweep that weekend, I think that was the first time I was like, 'Yeah, man. This team is special.'"
While Denver has cruised into the title game, Minnesota-Duluth's path has been far more nerve-wracking. The Bulldogs won their first two NCAA tournament games in overtime and required a goal from Alex Iafallo with 26.6 seconds remaining in regulation to defeat Harvard 2-1 in their Frozen Four semifinal. Minnesota-Duluth can't afford to fall in an early hole Saturday. Denver is 24-0-1 this season when it scores first.
The two teams -- league rivals in the NCHC -- met for a two-game series in December. Denver won the first game 4-3, and Minnesota-Duluth responded with a 3-1 victory. Players and coaches on each side stressed the importance of not reading too much into those results, though. Teams evolve significantly over four months. Plus, Denver did not have the services of Bergstrom, who missed the series because of an illness.
Saturday's contest could produce a memorable classic. In 15 seasons of the 16-team NCAA tournament format, this is the first time the top two overall seeds have advanced to the national championship game.
"The players know each other extremely well," Denver coach Jim Montgomery said. "I don't think the coaches have to tell who has to go out on the ice when one line goes over, because they're going to know. ... It's going to be a barn-burner and a great show for college hockey."