BOSTON — The most important conversation on the Denver bench took place roughly six minutes into the third period.
For the first time all game, the Pioneers had Minnesota State on the ropes. Just moments before, despite being heavily outshot and not having control for the first 40 minutes of the game, Ryan Barrow squeaked a shot through Minnesota State goalie Dryden McKay’s legs to tie the score 1-1.
There was hope.
So, when Minnesota State’s Sam Morton went off for a tripping penalty, Denver defenseman Shai Buium turned to Mike Benning — his d-partner and copilot on Denver’s power play.
“I’m going to give you a one-timer,” Buium said to Benning.
Not much else had to be said. Just like they’d practiced numerous times, Buium would set up at the top with Benning to his left.
It just came down to when the play broke their way.
So, with Minnesota State’s penalty kill shifted to Buium’s right and the penalty expired with Morton racing back into the play, Buium sifted the puck to his left.
You can guess who was open.
“Just lock and load it,” Benning told NCAA.com of the goal.
Lock and load it he did. Benning fired a missile that soared over McKay’s shoulder and into the back of the net. The Hobey Baker winner never had a chance.
Denver had control for the first time all night. The Pioneers never gave it up.
Six minutes later, after numerous defensive stands by Denver in its own zone, Massimo Rizzo fired a one-timer past McKay on an odd-man rush to extend the lead to 3-1.
Then came two empty-netters and in an incredible turn of events, Denver won, 5-1, ensuring the program’s ninth national championship. The Pioneers are now tied with Michigan for the most titles ever.
"Words don't describe the feelings," Denver head coach David Carle said after the victory.
It just didn’t look so sure in those first two periods.
Minnesota State was outshooting Denver, 18-8. The Mavericks had full control and if history was any indication, that squad having control entering the third period typically spelled trouble for opponents. The Mavericks entered Saturday’s championship going 31-1-0 in games when leading after two frames.
Two things led to Denver’s incredible change in momentum.
The first was Carle’s speech in the second intermission.
“It was just the belief of the group,” Benning said of Carle’s speech. “He gave a great speech and got us all fired up so obviously it worked. We’re all fired up.”
And why wouldn’t they be fired up? The Pioneers were only down 1-0 at the time. Despite the odds being stacked against them, Denver had spent an entire season playing, and succeeding, against tough opponents in the NCHC.
The second was the terrific play of goalie Magnus Chrona. The six-foot-five netminder stopped 27 of the 28 shots faced. When Denver was under siege from Minnesota State’s top scorers in those first 40 minutes, Chrona was the one keeping his squad's hopes alive.
"I gotta give a shoutout to Magnus," Barrow said. "For the first 40 minutes, I don't think our team realized we were in the national championship game there for a bit. He stood on his head, and once our feet got under us, we were able to do what we were able to do."
It didn’t matter that Chrona entered the Frozen Four with the worst save percentage of the four starting goalies.
It’s the Frozen Four. Anything can happen.
Both of those events were vital in getting Denver the win. But that quick conversation between Buium and Benning on the Denver bench early in the third period may have been the most important.
And the duo’s chemistry got the Pioneers a title because of it.