ST PAUL, Minn. - In an ad campaign shot before the season, the Colorado College Tigers promised, “We will not finish where we started.”
They did not. Even though the season ended with a thud Saturday in a 6-1 loss to Denver, swept in the Frozen Faceoff and short of the NCAA Tournament, the Tigers moved forward.
Trophies are in the locker room, where none had been since 2014. CC (17-20-4) won a playoff series for the first time as part of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
The seniors, third in the country in scoring (51-86-137) as a group going into the game, won almost three times as many games as they did their freshman year.
Cole McCaskill remembers watching the seniors pull off their jerseys for the last time that season after a 5-1 loss to North Dakota. The score was similar Saturday, but much had changed.
“They still have a lot of work to do, but I think we left it better off than when we got there,” senior Trevor Gooch said.
“Those guys did an amazing job of really setting the standards and holding guys to it, erasing, really, the first two years of their careers at CC,” Haviland confirmed.
As they both lost semifinal games Friday, the tournament’s Colorado teams faced off early Saturday in a third-place game without consequences while the Minnesota teams prepared to skate for a trophy later in the evening.
“Just getting here isn’t good enough,” senior Mason Bergh said. “We want to be able to get here and compete and move on from this tournament”
The last time Denver and CC played, the Gold Pan trophy was on the line, but this time, it was an afterthought. The arena was quiet, and the No. 5 Pioneers — killing time before learning where they’re headed in their 12th straight NCAA Tournament — used it as target practice.
Ian Mitchell and Liam Finlay each scored twice as the Pioneers pulled away in the second period. Alex Leclerc stuck it out and made 23 saves.
Linemates Trey Bradley and co-captain Bergh connected one last time for CC’s only goal. Devin Cooley lost his stick with the Tigers on a 5-on-3. Bradley sent one off both goal posts and in to make it 1-1.
He led the team in goals (15) and points (34) with career-highs in both.
The other co-captain, Tanner Ockey, went out with a bang, ejected a few minutes early while backing up a teammate in a scrum.
“We got the trophy,” McCaskill reminded. “They got the last laugh, but hopefully that lights a little fire for the guys coming back next year."
McCaskill said he, Andrew Farny and Ben Israel are leaving the blue line in good shape. Bryan Yoon (3 goals, 23 assists) surpassed Jaccob Slavin’s 2013-14 total and became CC’s highest-scoring freshman defenseman since Scott Swanson in 1995-1996.
“(Kristian) Blumenschein, he’s an underrated one,” McCaskill said. “He doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves for being solid. (Zach) Berzolla, defensively, has got to be one of the tops in the NCHC.
“I hate to say they’re cutting the dead weight, but we were getting kind of old.”
As for forwards, Ockey says junior Alex Berardinelli will rally the troops, with the help of a breakout freshman.
“Grant Cruikshank’s one of those guys who’s going to lead the way here,” Ockey said.
And of course, rising senior Leclerc will try to work his way further into the CC record books and cement a place among the country’s elite.
They’ve pulled off their own game jerseys for the last time. But with progress to monitor, a new rink on the way and stories to tell, McCaskill and Ockey plan to check in frequently, and visit often.
“I’m looking forward to coming back next year and watching the guys win this thing,” McCaskill said.