In a last minute lineup change, #3 University of Denver Pioneers head coach Jim Montgomery decided to shake things up and insert previously injured star Dylan Gambrell into the lineup and start his line. The move paid off as Gambrell scored and the Pioneers topped the Western Michigan University Broncos 3-1.
The decision to replace freshman Liam Finlay with Gambrell in the line chart was especially surprising given Gambrell wasn’t expected to return from an upper-body injury until the North Dakota series in two weeks…at the earliest. Earlier this year, Gambrell was hurt, likely against Mount Royal University in DU’s only exhibition game.
“He’s been begging me to play,” Montgomery said after the game. “The doctor said that if his injury isn’t hurting him, then he’s fine. Once I heard that, well…he’s so much fun to watch.”
Despite the injury, his goal got the Pioneers going offensively in the second period. After a shot from the point by Adam Plant, the rebound fell to Gambrell’s stick and he fired the puck home to put the Pioneers on the board and get a much-needed first marker.
“Practicing all week I think I built the confidence and felt good enough to play this weekend,” Gambrell said. “I feel good…I’ve been skating. That’s the good thing about upper-body injuries. You can keep your legs and your conditioning for the most part.”
His goal wasn’t the only thing that gave the Pios a lift against the Broncos. His constant puck pressure and excellent skating were x-factors all night. In short, his presence gave DU an advantage they didn’t realize they needed.
In the larger picture, this was an important victory for the Pioneers. It was their first foray into NCHC-play in 2016 and while WMU may not look like the most formidable foe on paper, no team can ever take an NCHC matchup for granted (not even CC).
While Denver dominated most of the game on paper, WMU kept finding ways to keep themselves in the game. Whether it came from a key save from goalie Trevor Gorsuch or a takeaway in their defensive zone, they almost always found a way to keep DU from running away with this game, even if the statistics indicated that they should have (DU outshot Western 35-26).
Gambrell’s surprise presence gave DU a much-needed emotional and on-ice boost, but this victory over WMU, DU’s first of what they hope to be many NCHC victories, was the epitome of a “team win.” Everyone chipped in on almost every shift and as has become the norm for the Pioneers, the defensive side of the game was nothing short of outstanding.
Beating Western Michigan has become the norm for most of the NCHC in the past few years, but as Montgomery mentioned, this is the most improved team in the conference. Beating the Broncos really shouldn’t be seen as a given anymore.
“I really liked the way we started the game,” Montgomery said. “I didn’t love the way we ended the game, but we found a way to win and this is a real tough conference to win. That was the hardest game we’ve played this year.”
The Pioneers will have their hands full again on Saturday night as the two teams meet again at Magness Arena for game two of the weekend series. The puck drops at 7:00 PM MT.