For Denver, NCHC semifinal against North Dakota more than just another rivalry game

Photo courtesy Russ Hons

If you want to get a University of Denver hockey player’s blood boiling and heart pumping, all you have to do is mention North Dakota. The rivalry between the Pioneers and the Fighting Hawks goes back decades and there’s no love lost between the two programs. From conference tournament matchups to national seminfinal and title games, the hatred has festered and the fireworks fly every time the two programs take the ice.

The same will be true when the Pioneers and Fighting Hawks hit the ice for the third time this year tomorrow at the Target Center. But there’s more at stake for Denver than simply beating a rival and advancing to the NCHC title game.

“The only thing that concerns me is I don’t think we have had the toughest schedule here in the last month,” DU head coach Jim Montgomery said after Denver’s sweep of Colorado College in the first round. “We haven’t played against a team that’s going to push back at us and hem us in our own end. We’re going to face that [in the Frozen Faceoff] and that’s why I’m excited.”

It’s not just playing North Dakota. It’s not just the fact that a conference title is on the line this weekend. It’s that Denver is going to face a test that they haven’t faced over the last month of the season heading into the postseason. A 13-game winning streak turns heads, but you can’t help but wonder if the quality of competition played a significant factor along the way.

During the winning streak, Denver hasn’t played a single team that finished in the top half of the NCHC and four of their wins came against Colorado College…not exactly the caliber of competition they’ll be facing over the few weeks.

“It’s going to be a big test,” DU captain Will Butcher said of the Frozen Faceoff. “I think the reason we chose the 7:30 game is to get prepared for the national tournament. We want to play in a tough environment.”

That’s exactly what North Dakota tomorrow night and this weekend as a whole represents. Rather than playing the likes of Omaha, Miami, and Colorado College, no matter how this weekend plays out, Denver will be playing two teams that gave DU one of their losses (North Dakota in 3-on-3 overtime).

“For our team, playing in front of 12,000 green monsters in a different environment is going to help us prepare for the national tournament,” Montgomery said.

This weekend is going to present a challenge Denver hasn’t seen over the course of the second half of the season. The atmosphere is going to be electric and more than a tad biased against the Pioneers, at least on Friday night.

In other words, this weekend, Friday night specifically, is exactly what Denver needs to face if they’re going to bring two more trophies back to Denver.

Denver and North Dakota take the ice tomorrow night at 6:38 PM MT at the Target Center in Minneapolis. If you didn’t make the trip, the game will be televised on the CBS Sports Network.