Photo courtesy Maddie MacFarlane/DU Hockey
ST. PAUL, Minn. – It was ugly but it might have been the most important moment of the season for the #4 University of Denver Pioneers. That moment, or rather that game may come to define what the Pioneers do and where they go in the postseason. That game, of course, was Denver’s 2-0 shutout loss to in-state rival Colorado College in Game One of the best-of-three NCHC Quarterfinal series.
Denver outshot the Tigers 37-23 in the game but by the third period, when CC scored both of their goals, the Pioneers were flat and played underwhelming hockey. It was a surprise of sorts for die-hard DU fans. How could Denver play that poorly and get shut out by one of college hockey’s recent basement dwellers?
All of a sudden, the Pioneers were on the brink of elimination from the NCHC Tournament and a fifth-straight trip to the Frozen Faceoff was in doubt. DU responded in a big way with a dramatic 3-2 victory in Game Two on Saturday and a dominant 6-1 blowout win in Game Three. It was the exact kind of response the Pioneers needed after a disappointing playoff debut.
“I thought everyone played inspired hockey on Saturday and Sunday,” DU head coach Jim Montgomery said after Sunday night’s victory. “We’re hoping that Friday night was that lesson that galvanizes us to play inspired hockey and play the right way the rest of the way.”
Playing inspired hockey has been the theme for the Pioneers since last Friday and it will need to continue throughout this weekend if the Pioneers are going to end their three-year streak of semifinal losses.
“We haven’t had great success in this tournament the past couple years,” DU captain Tariq Hammond said after Thursday’s practice. “But we’re just staying in the moment and I really think we’re playing inspired hockey right now. Our backs were against the wall last weekend and we put two good efforts out so we’re looking to carry that forward…there’s a lot of excitement coming from our locker room.”
If there was a more inspired performance over the course of DU’s season than in Game Two or Game Three last weekend, it would come as a shock. For the first time since maybe November, the Pioneers finally looked like a team that could go on a run to win not just the NCHC title but also a second straight National Title.
And if you ask Montgomery about that, he’ll repeat himself give you the buzzword once again: “I thought last week was a galvanizing moment for our group to play inspired hockey for the teammate that’s next to you and leave something that’s better on the ice, leave momentum on the ice for the next line that’s coming out. I think that’s what we need to do the rest of the season or else the season doesn’t advance.”
The Pioneers know what’s ahead of them. In a sense, the season finally started last weekend and the games really start to count for the defending national champions. Though they’d never admit it, DU has had their eyes firmly focused on the postseason since the season started in early October. The goal has never wavered. They knew where they wanted to be at this stage in the season and they’re here. Denver’s next obstacle on their march to the NCHC and NCAA titles is a familiar foe in Minnesota Duluth.
How exactly do the Pioneers plan to get past the Bulldogs tomorrow night in the Semifinal? Yep, you guessed it: they’re going to play inspired hockey.