CHICAGO -- Both combatants in Saturday's NCAA title game at United Center boast seven-man senior classes.
While every one of those players took a different path to this game, those seniors are a large reason both the UMD Bulldogs and Denver Pioneers have found themselves playing for the ultimate prize in college hockey.
On the UMD side, while each senior has made a large impact on this team, the main water-carriers have been captain Dominic Toninato and longtime linemate (going back to their time in juniors with Fargo) Alex Iafallo.
"Number one, they had a lot of success together in Fargo," head coach Scott Sandelin said Friday. "So when you're bringing them both in at the same time, I'm not going to screw that up, you just keep playing them together. And at times I've thought is one helping the other or hurting the other, maybe they're too comfortable, and we've tried that, as you've seen moving Al maybe to a different line.
"But we always seem to go back to those two because of their chemistry. And I think they love playing together. I think they both complement each other very well. So been pretty easy. And we've just had to find a right winger for those guys.
"But if you look at them, again, I've said this a number of times, they've been awesome for us this year. I think they've both had great years. I think they both have played at a very high level consistently."
Toninato set up Joey Anderson's first-period goal in Thursday's semifinal win over Harvard with an offensive zone faceoff win. Then Iafallo tipped a pass from Willie Raskob with 26.6 seconds left to lift UMD to another in a series of one-goal wins.
(Iafallo, by the way, was named a First Team West Region All American by the American Hockey Coaches Association Friday. He was previously named first-team All NCHC and hit 50 points for the season and scored his 20th goal of the season for the winner Thursday.)
"It's a pretty surreal feeling," Kotyk said of getting to the championship game. "We've all had different paths. But I think we've come together as a team. Everybody brings something a little different to the table."
Kotyk is the oldest player on the team at 25, older than people who are here covering the tournament. He arrived at St. Scholastica as an older freshman, then transferred to UMD after one season. That meant sitting out the 2013-14 season and getting three years of eligibility after that, hence the age gap.
"I think we've got guys who bought into their roles," Raskob said, "and I think that's been the difference this year, is everyone's accepted the role they have on the team and, yeah, it's been incredible and so amazing and so surreal, and just taking everything in and enjoying the moment."
Raskob has been pretty consistently a top-four defenseman for UMD since his arrival from Shattuck-St. Mary's by way of his hometown of Hastings. Raskob's informal nickname, Mr. March, might need to be expanded to add April. In 18 postseason games in his career, Raskob has six goals, 12 points, and a plus-eight that leads all active UMD players.
For most of his career, Raskob has been paired with Carson Soucy. When the latter went down with a lower-body injury March 3 against Western Michigan and couldn't play in the NCAA West Regional two weeks ago in Fargo, Raskob did everything he could -- including scoring the overtime winner against Ohio State -- to make sure his partner got to play in the Frozen Four.
"That's huge," Soucy said. "It shows how close our team has been. That's what it takes to get here, you have to want to do it for the guy sitting next to you."
UMD's punching bag, so to speak, has been forward Kyle Osterberg. Along with posting strong offensive numbers this season (12 goals, 23 points, three game-winners), Osterberg has been a fixture on the penalty kill throughout his career, and he has been good at drawing both penalties and the ire of his adversaries.
Not many things have made me happier in my 12 years doing this than watching Dan Molenaar have the season he had. The senior and former state champion at Eden Prairie has been snakebit by injuries and illness during his UMD career, but has put it all together this year to become a steady influence on the blue line. The only game Molenaar has missed was the opener against Michigan Tech (healthy scratch).
True to his form, Molenaar was a class act when asked about his emotions heading into the championship game.
"I want to give credit to the guys who aren't in the lineup," Molenaar said. "The last couple of years in the regionals and stuff I was out. I know how hard that is. But they've just been exceptional teammates. And I think that's a reflection of the character in our room, and I think it speaks volumes to the program that so many people laid the foundation to build. And it's just a blast to be here with these guys and, yeah, there's no other way we want to end it."
The task Saturday is formidable, against a Denver team that has a similar senior class that's on a mission to complete the journey that fell short last year, when the Pioneers lost a national semifinal to eventual champion North Dakota.
DU is captained by Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher, who eschewed the potential start of his professional career for one more year in college. He has led the charge for a group of older Pioneers who have spoken openly about their singular goal for this season.
"Well, you know, we've been here last year, and obviously we lost in the semifinal," said forward Emil Romig. "And it was pretty crushing for a lot of us. And so with you speaking to being on a mission, I mean, we've been working to get back here all year long. 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, I mean, you know, we've got to finish it off."
Butcher could choose free agency this summer over signing with the Colorado Avalanche, who drafted him. However, he told NHL Network Friday after winning the Hobey his "sole focus" is Saturday's game against UMD.
It's the spot this group has worked all season to get to, and they refuse to be denied now.