Pioneers speed past spent Tigers, advance to fifth-consecutive Frozen Faceoff

photo courtesy of Shannon Valerio

The series required all three games to determine which team would advance to the semifinals of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC), but the No. 5-ranked University of Denver Pioneers put on a clinic against the wasted Colorado College Tigers (15-17-5, 8-13-4 NCHC) on Sunday, March 11 evening.

Denver (20-9-8, 13-6-6 NCHC) won the best of three series with a dominating 6-1 victory where five different players scored in the final meeting. The Pioneers rallied after losing the first game 2-0 on Friday night. 

“It’s encouraging the way we responded from Friday night through the rest of the weekend. Just being harder,” DU head coach Jim Montgomery said. “I thought it was an opportunity for us to grow as a team and become more united. Hopefully that’s what has transpired here. I thought everyone played inspired hockey on Saturday and Sunday.

“I think it’s the team collective effort of grinding them down. It was the mentality that we had that we wanted to wear them out over time. It took longer than we wanted it to, but we finally got to them [CC] tonight.”

The win was a special sendoff for the 2018 senior class who suited up for their last game at Magness Arena. Tanner Jaillet made 18 saves during the victory before he was replaced by freshman Devin Cooley in the third period. Senior captain Tariq Hammond scored his first goal of his final season for the Crimson and Gold.

“All four of them are special young men,” Montgomery said. “The way they have grown as people and as players speaks volume about what the University of Denver does. It also speaks volumes about the families they come from. They’ve left the University of Denver hockey program, whenever this season culminates, they’re gong to leave this place in a better than when they walked in the door. That speaks volume about them.”

CC goalie Alex Leclerc wasn’t as sharp as he had previously been against the explosive Pioneer offense. Logan O’Connor, Tariq Hammond, Jarid Lukosevicius and Henrik Borgstrom were all prosperous in beating Leclerc before the sophomore was pulled from between the pipes. His replacement, Alec Calvaruso, relinquished two goals; one to Liam Finlay and Lukosevicius’ second of the night. Junior forward Troy Terry dished out four assists over the 60-minutes.

For the first time in the series the Pioneers jumped out with an early lead. Junior forward Colin Staub drove to the net and sent his a pass across the crease. Linemate Logan O’Connor was on the backdoor and buried the puck to ignite Denver’s scoring.

“It was big for us [to get an early lead],” Hammond said. “We wanted to make them defend, use our speed and use our size down low. I think they just lowed down and we stuck to it.”

While the Tigers were clearly struggling to keep up with the pace controlled by the Pioneers following two previously taxing games, the intensity between programs carried over.

Kohen Olischefski was assessed with hooking. Right as the Pioneers killed the CC power play off, junior forward Troy Terry displayed a relentless forecheck to regain possession and fed the puck to Hammond who rushed down from the point. The defenseman doubled the Pioneers lead.

The Pioneers extended their lead to five with three goals scored in the second period. Lukosevicius scored on a tic-tac-toe sequence from linemates Troy Terry and Henrik Borgstrom.

“The top line scored some high-end goals,” Montgomery said. “Those two Lukosevicius goals were tic-tac-toe plays that those guys can make.”

Freshman Ryan Barrow was sent off for a contact to the head hit and game misconduct violation. Senior Rudy Junda served the five minute penalty. One-minute into the penalty kill, the Tigers were called for too many men on the ice.

With four-on-four hockey underway, DU’s points leader Borgstrom, scored his 21st goal of his sophomore campaign. The Finnish phenom danced through the Tigers’ blueline and fired his shot at Leclerc who rebounded the puck up high. Borgstrom swatted the puck between Leclerc’s legs.

Leclerc was pulled from net following Borgstrom’s goal. Riding momentum from the fourth goal of the night, Liam Finlay buried a rebound on the doorstep.

Devin Cooley replaced Jaillet in net. __ minutes into his third appearance of his rookie campaign, CC’s Mason Bergh cut the deficit down to four goals.

The Pioneers didn’t allow for the Tigers to __ any momentum from their sole goal. Lukosevicius returned Denver’s lead to five goals with __ minutes remaining in regulation. Terry fed a flying Lukosevicius near the right faceoff circle. Lukosevicius drilled the one-timer into twine.

The victory marks the 17th consecutive season the Pioneers have recorded 20 or more wins.

After struggling the previous two nights, Denver’s performance provides crucial momentum heading into their fifth consecutive Frozen Faceoff tournament appearance in St. Paul, Minn. next weekend. Denver has made the conference tournament every year since the establishment of the NCHC. 

“It speaks volumes of consistency of being good at the end of the year,” Montgomery said. “This is a tough conference as we know, four-to-six teams usually make the NCAA tournament.”

The Pioneers will play the University of Minnesota Duluth on Friday, March 16 at the Xcel Energy Center. The championship and consolation game will be held on Saturday, March 17.