Denver loses to unranked Merrimack, leaves questions unanswered to start second half

Photo courtesy DU Athletics

Since Jim Montgomery took over as head coach of the #2 University of Denver hockey program in 2013, the Pioneers have always been a second-half team. Even with a middling roster decimated by early departures in his first year, DU roared back in the second half to win the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament. In the years since, the second half has always been a friend to the Pioneers. However, after a 3-2 loss to unranked and Hockey East bottom feeder Merrimack in DU’s first game of the 2017-18 second half, the comfort of knowing the second half is coming is quickly giving way to concern.

“I thought we battled hard,” Montgomery said after the loss. “Obviously our execution and our skill with the puck, our passing, was not very good. I thought we played with more pace and determination as the game went on.”

Tonight’s loss to Merrimack makes it two straight bad losses for the Pioneers after the Pioneers blew a 3-0 lead to lose to Dartmouth 5-4 two weeks ago. Dartmouth was ranked #59 out of 60 teams in the Pairwise rankings. Merrimack? #45. Do you see where this is going?

Throughout the up-and-down first half of the season, Montgomery was left shaking his head times. He’s questioned his team’s work ethic. He’s questioned his own coaching. He’s even questioned his team’s leadership. “It’s not the younger guys who are the issue,” Montgomery has said repeatedly through the first three months of the season.

“Tonight, I thought our leadership was good because our effort was good,” Montgomery said. “I thought the team was ready to play.”

The Pioneers played poorly in their own end and there were a number of neutral zone turnovers that led to dangerous chances and a goal for Merrimack. Whether it was sloppy play or just knocking off some of the rust after a 10-day layoff, it was an ugly performance for Denver.

“You have to give Merrimack some credit,” Montgomery said. “They have a pretty good neutral zone forecheck and they’re very committed. They have a lot of people coming to the puck so it’s very hard to penetrate into their end cleanly.”

Despite skating to a 1-1 tie through two periods thanks to goals from Cole McBride for Merrimack and Kohen Olischefski for Denver, the Warriors’ Brett Seney took advantage of the lackadaisical Pioneers and scored two goals in a span of 44 seconds. Ian Mitchell managed to add a goal with the extra skater on the ice with about a minute and a half left, but it was too little, too late.

Tanner Jaillet played well between the pipes and the Pioneers’ overall effort was good. But taking tonight’s result combined with the entire first half into account, it’s hard to look ahead to the Pioneers’ next couple months without some level of concern.

Sure, Denver’s focus right now is on Air Force tomorrow night. And it should be. They’re the next opponent and the reality is the Pioneers can’t really afford to lose to another weak Pairwise opponent. But looking at the bigger picture, the rest of the season, it’s easy to see that if they Pioneers don’t right the ship quickly, the second half isn’t going to be their friend this year.

“I told [the team] I thought our effort was good, but it wasn’t great,” Montgomery said. “We need to continue to get better. Coming off the break, we weren’t very crisp and we have to be a little bit cleaner in our plays. Hopefully we’ll get there tomorrow night.

It’s a long season and there’s so much hockey left to be played. Hell, it’s not even 2018 yet. But right now, the Pioneers should be at least a bit concerned. The type of first half Denver had can’t sink a team’s hopes of a championship season, but it does raise some eyebrows. The time has come for the Pioneers to answer those questions and decide where they want to be in a few short months. A win against Air Force tomorrow night would be a perfect time to start.