Denver-Minnesota Duluth: Pioneers continue postseason run with National Title rematch

ST. PAUL, Minn. – The University of Denver and the University of Minnesota Duluth. For the past two decades, both hockey programs have been synonymous with excellence on the ice. They’ve combined for four national titles since 2004 and crossed paths at nearly every stage of the postseason. It’d be a stretch to compare the matchup to what Denver and North Dakota have been over the course of their histories, but it’s not as far-fetched as you might think.

Tomorrow night, the two programs will meet in the postseason for the second year in a row. Of course, last year’s matchup in the National Championship game is a source of pride for Denver fans and source of strife for UMD fans. It’s hard to forget watching Jarid Lukosevicius tally the first National Championship hat trick since DU head coach Jim Montgomery accomplished the feat for Maine in 1993 en route to a tight 3-2 DU victory.

While both DU and UMD are much different teams now than their predecessors from a year ago, that game at the United Center in Chicago was a perfect representation of the kind of matchup Denver-Duluth has been this year. All four games between the Pioneers and Bulldogs have been one-goal affairs and the two teams combined for a total of just 12 goals in those games. There is no reason to believe Friday night’s game will be any different than the past five, all won by Denver.

“I don’t have a logical answer…we’ve been luckier,” Montgomery said when asked how Denver has been able to come out on top in nine of the last 11 meetings with UMD. “It was amazing to me when someone told me the stats. All I know is it’s always great hockey. It’s hard, it’s physical, it’s clean, and there’s lots of playmakers on both sides of the ice.”

That’s exactly the kind of hockey that’s been played by both teams in all four matchups so far this year. Both teams had to grind and try to somehow find time and space in the dirty areas. While Denver has been more successful at doing that this year, only a fool would go into the second NCHC Semifinal assuming Denver will come out on top.

Denver may have the most flashy firepower of any team in the country on their top two lines. Henrik Borgström, Troy Terry, and Dylan Gambrell have combined for an astounding 133 points this year. Lukosevicius has chipped in another 32 points to the effort, good for fourth on the team.

“We all know and talk about their offensive play,” UMD head coach Scott Sandelin said of DU’s offensive prowess. “They’re certainly talented with the forwards that they have.”

But don’t sell the Bulldogs short. While Denver is more well-known for their offense, UMD has scored just one fewer goal than DU this year. Bulldogs leading scorer, freshman Scott Perunovich has 34 points which would put him in fourth on DU’s scoring list. UMD can score with the best teams because they have some of the best scoring depth in the conference. Denver, of course, is talented, but their scoring this year has been top-heavy. If the Big Three can’t get going, it will be a long night offensively for Denver.

Contrasting that with UMD, DU’s defense can’t just key in on one or two of UMD’s lines to shut down their scoring attack. All four Bulldog lines have had the scoring touch this year and it’s going to be up to Denver’s defense to keep from taking any line lightly. Denver’s defense is talented but shutting down UMD’s balanced attack will once again prove to be a challenge.

The encouraging part is Denver’s defense has completely shut it down twice this year, earning two 1-0 shutouts, one in Duluth and one in Denver. Said Sandelin: “They’re a good defensive team. You don’t get a lot of opportunities. They don’t take a lot of penalties, so your power play has to take advantage of the maybe one or two or three [power plays] that you get in the game because obviously, that’s an opportunity to score.”

Denver has been a great defensive team once again this year, giving up an average of just 2.11 goals per game. They’ve been responsible in their own end and avoided taking many egregious penalties (much to many NCHC fans’ displeasure). If they’re going to make it six straight victories over the Bulldogs and end their three-year streak of losing in the NCHC Semifinal, the Pioneers will have to continue playing smart, clean defense. The offensive opportunities will present themselves; they always do when you have three of the most offensively gifted players in the country.

The Pioneers’ focus will be on defense and matching UMD’s physicality throughout the game while the Bulldogs’ will be on taking Sandelin’s words to heart and taking advantage of whatever offensive opportunities present themselves. Scoring opportunities will be at a premium tomorrow night and physical, defensive hockey will take center stage, just like the previous five have been. St. Cloud State-North Dakota may receive most of the coverage this weekend, but don’t stray too far from your television tomorrow night. DU-UMD isn’t one you’re going to want to miss.