Denver drops close defensive battle to North Dakota in Frozen Faceoff semifinal

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There’s always one constant anytime the top-ranked University of Denver Pioneers and the North Dakota Fighting Hawks take the ice together: it’s going to be a close game. Tonight’s game between the two teams at the Frozen Faceoff in Minneapolis was no different as the Fighting Hawks skated out of the building with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over the Pioneers.

It wasn’t a pretty game. It wasn’t an offensive game. For all intents and purposes, it was an uneventful but tense game. It was tight-checking and the game never really opened up until the third period. Through the first two periods, the two teams combined for just 28 shots.

“We hadn’t faced a tight checking team like that in a while,” DU head coach Jim Montgomery said. “They’re long and they have great sticks. We refused to use walls, we didn’t put pucks in behind them and we didn’t have good support coming to the puck. That’s why we spent more time in our defensive zone than we have all year.”

The game’s only goal came at the 2:30 mark of the final frame as Austin Poganski shot the puck into a wide open net after Colton Poolman’s shot bounced off the boards behind DU’s net. It was a dose of puck luck for the Hawks and they didn’t squander it.

It wasn’t like Denver didn’t have their chances as well. Dylan Gambrell hit a post in the second period after a great pass across the slot from Henrik Borgström and Evan Janssen had a breakaway chance taken away by a questionable penalty called against Matt Marcinew.

In retrospect, this loss was a bit predictable. Over the past couple of weeks, Montgomery vocalized his concern about Denver’s strength of schedule over the final two months of the season…and he had reason to worry as the Pioneers hadn’t played a Frozen Faceoff team since mid-January at Western Michigan.

“It was good for us to see that,” Montgomery said of Denver’s first matchup against a Frozen Faceoff team since January. “We hadn’t seen it in a while and North Dakota was great tonight. I thought they played with more desperation and they deserved the victory.”

All is not lost for the Pioneers, though. Any loss to the Fighting Hawks hurts, but there is a lot to take from this game moving forward. A loss tonight may not be the worst thing in the world for the Pios. They had won 13 straight games coming into the Frozen Faceoff and a loss to a team like North Dakota can be a perfect reality check for a team with National Title aspirations.

“Just the pace and knowing how to play against a team that’s this good,” Montgomery said explaining what DU can take away from the loss. “It’s what we’re going to see in the NCAA Tournament. I’ve thought for a while our practices haven’t been at the pace we need to be, but we’ve been successful so it’s hard to really get mad at your players when you keep having success.

“The only silver lining out of this is we’re going to get back to practicing with pace and using walls and having great puck support.”

This loss will sting for a little while and render the third-place game tomorrow afternoon between Denver and Western Michigan completely meaningless for a second straight year, but this loss offers a good chance for the Pioneers to refocus and right the ship before starting the national tournament next weekend.

“It’s going to give us motivation,” Will Butcher said of the loss. “Our offensive game wasn’t there tonight. Our offense is going to have a bit more attitude going into the NCAA Tournament.”

Denver and Western Michigan hit the ice tomorrow afternoon in the third place game at 2:30 PM MT. The game will not be televised, but it will be on