CHICAGO -- Until Tariq Hammond awkwardly hit the end boards, his right ankle twisting in a way it was not intended to, Denver had taken an unsurprisingly direct path toward a national championship.
The top-seeded Pioneers, elite at both ends of the ice, had won each of their first three NCAA tournament games by at least two goals and had scored at least five goals in each contest. They had struck first in Saturday's title game against Minnesota-Duluth, forcing their opponent to do what none had accomplished in 25 games this season: erase a 1-0 deficit to beat Denver. And, just to increase the doubt for the Bulldogs, Denver scored again 16 seconds later.
The post-game talk would be about the historic link between Pioneers winger Jarid Lukosevicius, who recorded a hat trick in the second period, and the last man to do so in the NCAA title game: Denver coach Jim Montgomery, who scored three times during a furious stretch of 4:35 as Maine rallied to win the 1993 title about 90 miles from here in Milwaukee.
But with Denver up 3-1 and on cruise control, its most physical defenseman -- "a warrior," Montgomery said -- went down. As Hammond was wheeled off the ice on a stretcher, Denver's momentum seemed to go with him. Minnesota-Duluth began peppering shots, and Denver was forced to win the biggest game of the season in survival mode.
The Pioneers survived. The 3-2 win gave Denver its eighth national title and first since 2005.
And the best part? Denver's celebration wasn't incomplete. Despite a likely fractured ankle that three orthopedic surgeons struggled to reset, Hammond appeared on the ice afterward, a protective boot on his leg and his arms around teammates for support, as the Pioneers received the championship trophy.
"Beep, beep, beep, beep, championship," Lukosevicius said of his expletive-filled message to Hammond on the ice. "That's the truth."
The truth is Denver had to earn its championship against a Minnesota-Duluth team that wouldn't relent. Denver had the game's first eight shots and twice took two-goal leads, but Minnesota-Duluth finished with a 40-28 edge in shots, thanks to its third-period barrage (and a 17-3 advantage) against Tanner Jaillet, who won the Mike Richter Award as college hockey's top goaltender.
"I thought we were playing really well ... until [Hammond's] injury, and I thought the next six minutes, we were just holding on, like we were wearing seatbelts," Montgomery said. "We weren't skating anymore."
A game Denver dominated for stretches had sharply turned Minnesota-Duluth's way. The Bulldogs had been survivors all year and especially in the postseason, winning their previous four games by one goal.
They came in 14-4 overall in one-goal games, and when Riley Tufte beat Jaillet with 5:21 to play, they sensed another dramatic win.
"We had a lot of belief in our team," wing Karson Kuhlman said. "Nobody doubted for a second that we could tie that game up and eventually win it. We learned lessons throughout the year, and it almost paid off there."
The title capped a dream season for Denver, which had the Hobey Baker Award winner in defenseman Will Butcher, the nation's top goaltender in Jaillet and the Division I national coach of the year in Montgomery. But it was Lukosevicius who played hero with his eighth game-winning goal, the most on the team.
Lukosevicius hadn't scored a hat trick since midget hockey, saying Saturday, "I wasn't that good. I don't know what Monty saw in me."
Ironically, it was goal-scoring that drew coach to player. They are now forever linked in NCAA championship game lore. Future NHL star Paul Kariya, then an 18-year-old freshman who claimed the Hobey Baker Award that season, fed Montgomery on all three goals in the 1993 title game. Lukosevicius wasn't born for nearly two years later and didn't know about his coach's exploits until Saturday.
"I guess it's my turn to start balding," he joked.
The symmetry of Montgomery's two championships is striking. That night in Milwaukee 24 years ago, Maine beat Lake Superior State, whose coach, Jeff Jackson, later gave Montgomery his start in coaching at Notre Dame. Denver walloped Jackson's Fighting Irish team 6-1 in Thursday's semifinal.
Before Saturday's game, Montgomery spoke with Grant Standbrook, a Maine assistant when he played, about what it took to win it all. The 79-year-old Standbrook, hospitalized and battling cancer, texted Montgomery between periods with advice.
"It's just a special bond when you're part of a special program and a special family and you have that kind of commitment to each other," Montgomery said. "It never dies."
Hammond's commitment to his teammates, and theirs to him, came through in the closing minutes. Which is what made the celebration afterward especially sweet.
"You can't even put it into words," Hammond said in the Chicago Blackhawks dressing room, propping himself up with crutches. "To see this happen, the smiles on everyone's faces, all the hard work we put in all year, it feels so good.
"We deserve this."