CHICAGO — Tariq Hammond hobbled out to centre ice with a walking boot on his right leg. Surrounded by the jubilant Denver Pioneers, the junior defenceman just kept saying "We did it," over and over again.
Yup, it's real.
Jarid Lukosevicius scored three goals in the second period, and Denver beat Minnesota Duluth 3-2 on Saturday night for the NCAA championship.
Troy Terry had two assists and Tanner Jaillet made 38 saves as Denver moved into a tie with North Dakota for second on the NCAA list with eight men's hockey titles, trailing only Michigan with nine. The Pioneers (33-7-4) also made it to the Frozen Four last year, but lost 4-2 to the Fighting Hawks in the semifinals — providing inspiration for this year's run to the program's first championship since 2005.
"It's hard to put into words," said senior captain Will Butcher, who became the sixth Hobey Baker Award winner to also take home the NCAA title in the same season. "After that loss, it seemed like everybody was focused from that day on to become better, become committed to excellence, like we always talk about."
The game was delayed early in the third when Minnesota centre Jared Thomas and Hammond got tangled up, and Hammond's right leg got pinned against the boards behind the Pioneers net.
Hammond, who had a goal and two assists in Denver's semifinal win against Notre Dame, was taken off on a stretcher. The Pioneers surrounded him for a brief moment on his way off.
"It's probably a broken ankle," coach Jim Montgomery said. "I guess it wasn't easy for three orthopedic surgeons that were here to put it back in place."
When play resumed, Minnesota Duluth pushed frantically to get back in the game. Riley Tufte's rebound goal got the Bulldogs within one at 14:39, but the Pioneers managed to hold on. Jaillet made 16 saves in the third.
"They were coming strong. They were throwing the kitchen sink at us," Jaillet said. "Our guys had huge blocks, making plays. We were able to weather that storm and obviously come out with the win."
Lukosevicius' three goals in a 7:39 span finished off the first hat trick in an NCAA final since Montgomery accomplished the feat in Maine's 5-4 victory against Lake Superior State in 1993. It also helped Montgomery become only the fourth man to win the championship as a head coach and player.
Lukosevicius was named most outstanding player of the Frozen Four.
"I was in the right place at the right time," he said.
Alex Iafallo also scored for Minnesota Duluth (28-7-7), and freshman Hunter Miska had 25 stops. The Bulldogs, the tournament's No. 2 overall seed behind only the Pioneers, dropped just two of their last 21 games.
"Our guys were awesome in the third, and we gave ourselves a chance to get back in the game," coach Scott Sandelin said. "And we just came up one goal short."
The NCAA final served as the 208th meeting between the longtime rivals and members of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. They split two entertaining games in Denver in December, with the Pioneers taking the opener 4-3 and the Bulldogs winning 3-1 on the second night.
Together again at the home of the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks, they put on another good show — especially in the second.
Denver jumped in front with two goals in 16 seconds. First, Michael Davies' shot went off Lukosevicius and into the top part of the net at 4:44. Then Terry made an outstanding drive to the net from the left wing corner and Lukosevicius slammed it home for his 15th of his sophomore season.
After Iafallo tipped Joey Anderson's power-play pass by Jaillet at 7:16, Lukosevicius struck again for the Pioneers. Terry tried to find Dylan Gambrell in front and the puck popped out to Lukosevicius, who knocked it in at 12:23.
"They're not easy goals he scored," Montgomery said. "I know that everyone says like he might have an open net, but he buried them and he was in the area where it's tough to score goals."
The Bulldogs responded with a strong push and nearly got another goal when Neal Pionk flipped the puck by a charging Jaillet in the final seconds of the second, but it went wide.
"Couldn't be prouder of the guys," Duluth captain Dominic Toninato said. "They battled and gave it their all."
The Pioneers poured out to the ice after the final seconds ticked off, ditching their helmets and gloves. They took turns skating around with the trophy, but the biggest highlight of the celebration for the players was the return of Hammond for the party.
"He's my best friend. He's a battler," Lukosevicius said. "It's unfortunate he went down. But it's awesome he stuck around and was able to celebrate with us."
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap
Jay Cohen, The Associated Press