Blake Hillman was all business after Denver routed Notre Dame 6-1 in the semifinals of the NCAA Men's Frozen Four on Thursday, quickly turning his focus to the next — and final — task at hand.
On Saturday, he and the Pioneers finished the job by knocking off Minnesota Duluth 3-2 in a thrilling championship game to capture their eighth national title in program history in front of 19,783 fans at the United Center, the largest crowd for an NCAA hockey final in an NHL arena.
"I'm speechless," Hillman said when we spoke after the game. "Growing up as a kid, all you want to do is win the championship, you think about the Stanley Cup, you think about playing college hockey and to do it with these guys is special. It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life."
Hillman, the Blackhawks' sixth-round pick (No. 173 overall) in 2016, was a vital part of Denver's defensive corps this season and he stepped up in a key moment during the biggest game of the year.
Early in the third period of a 3-1 lead, Pioneers junior defenseman Tariq Hammond suffered a gruesome ankle injury, and had to be stretchered off the ice. Not only is Hammond a guy who logs top-four minutes, but his leadership is as important to the team as his play on the ice.
It was a crucial blow, but it provided a chance for somebody to seize the opportunity by helping eat those important minutes.
Enter Hillman, who saw his ice time increase as did the quality of players on the opposition he saw in the final frame.
"We talked about how deep our team is ... Blake Hillman stepped up huge for us," said 2017 Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher. "Rolled five defensemen the whole time, kept the quick shifts and rolled through it."
While he's not flashy, the 6-foot-1, 188-pound Hillman prides himself on being reliable in his own end and hard to play against. He studies and tries to model his game after a two-time Norris Trophy and three-time Stanley Cup winner Chicago is well familiar with.
"Before every game, I watch Duncan Keith," Hillman said. "I watch his Norris Trophy highlights when he won it in 2014 and Conn Smythe in 2015. (What) all the commentators say about Keith is that his stick is always in the right place and he's always under control, and I try to do that. That's what the Blackhawks staff has been preaching. Just have a good stick, and make sure you're playing on the defensive side."
If there's one thing Hillman can improve on, it's putting together a full 60-minute game.
But Denver head coach Jim Montgomery praised the defenseman for his ability to deliver in the clutch and get better as the game goes on.
"Blake, I don't know what it is. I gotta get him to play as good in the first half as he does in the second half," Montgomery said. "Again, this year he just took it to another level in the second half. And he has great poise. He finds the middle of the ice. He's able to look people off and allow our forwards to skate with penetration.
"And with Butcher moving on, he's going to have to have a bigger role next year. But he plays the style of play — I don't know if everyone knows it, he's drafted by the Blackhawks. So he's a Blackhawk-style defenseman, very cerebral, good skater, knows how to make good plays in all three zones."
Not known for his offensive ability (he had seven points in 42 games this season), Hillman registered a secondary assist on the first of Jarid Lukosevicius' three goals that set the tone.
With great defense comes great offense, and Hillman proved that Saturday.
"Monty's been telling me, 'Defense first and the offense will come,'" Hillman said. "I got an assist, and that doesn't happen very often for me because I'm focusing on defense, so it was nice to get a little reward there."
The bigger reward was helping Denver win its first championship since 2005, and accomplishing a goal he's dreamed of.
He's still trying to soak that in and process it all.
"I don't even know what to say, it's unbelievable," Hillman said. "This means a lot to me. I'm speechless."