Photo courtesy DU Athletics
Coming into the weekend, the biggest concern many fans of the #3 University of Denver Pioneers had was the #18 Omaha Mavericks’ incredible offense and, more specifically, their power play unit. Now, two games, four power play goals, and two Denver victories later, the power play unit that we should have been focusing on all week was actually wearing Crimson and Gold.
Prior to this weekend’s matchup between the Mavs and Pios, Omaha had the third-best power play unit in the country, converting better than 25% of their power play opportunities. On top of that top-notch power play conversion rate, Omaha had the best offense in the NCHC, scoring 91 goals, a full 15 goals more than DU had scored.
This weekend, the tables completely turned. Behind 10 goals, four of which came on the power play, and stellar defense and goaltending, the Pioneers not only scored 10 goals on the weekend, but they held one of the country’s best offenses to three goals and just one power play goal in 12 chances.
“I thought [assistant coach] David Carle did a great job of making adjustments after we gave up the first goal yesterday,” DU head coach Jim Montgomery said. “Our penalty killers really executed well after that. I didn’t think they had dangerous looks after that.”
As impressive as the penalty killing effort was over the weekend, the Pioneers’ power play, which has been steadily improving over the past few weeks, was the star of both games, scoring 40% of Denver’s goals this weekend.
Denver’s top power play unit had the majority of the good looks on Friday with the extra man on the ice and goals by Henrik Borgström and Will Butcher bore that out. Tonight, however, it was the second power play unit, led by two Colin Staub goals, that saw the better looks.
“This is the first time since I’ve been a college hockey player that I’ve scored two goals,” Staub said. “It’s nice that the [power play] unit that I’m on has been able to get some chemistry and get some plays down that we can run. It’s really starting to put teams on their heels.”
The power play unit has come on strong in the second half. It’s become rare to see the Pios finish a game without scoring with the man-advantage. That wasn’t the case for much of last year and a good part of the first half of this year.
“I give credit to Will Butcher for taking ownership of that first power play,” Montgomery raved. “He brings them out early before practice to work on things and you can see the rhythm. They know what they want to do and then, if all else fails, just get the puck to Borgström.”
Fortunately, the Pioneers didn’t need to rely on Borgström or any of the top line for scoring, power play or even strength, on Saturday night. All five goals came from the second, third, and fourth lines, including defenseman Matt VanVoorhis’ first goal of the year.
Lost in the noise of Denver’s unusually high offensive production this weekend was the play of goalie Tanner Jaillet. Over the course of five-and-a-half periods, Denver’s starting goalie stopped 42 of 45 Omaha shots on the weekend before being pulled tonight in favor of Evan Cowley with just over nine minutes left and the 5-0 lead.
“He didn’t have to do a lot, but he did what we needed him to do. He’s a rock back there. I thought the game was maybe getting a little bit out of hand and I don’t want Tanner Jaillet to get run with the season he’s having,” Montgomery said, explaining why he put Cowley in the game even with Jaillet pitching a shutout.
This weekend’s 5-3 and 5-0 victories may have been the best two-game stretch of the season for the Pioneers, even considering the lackluster first period on Friday night. Last year, the Pioneers used a two-game sweep of Omaha in late January to propel them on a run to the Frozen Four. Who knows? Maybe Omaha can be a springboard for the Pios once again this year.