Pioneers muzzle Huskies to take second NCHC title, enter NCAA Tournament on high note

Photo courtesy Maddie MacFarlane

ST. PAUL, Minn. – In what might have been the best, most complete performance of the season, the #4 University of Denver Pioneers beat the #1 St. Cloud State University Huskies 4-1 to become the first program to win two NCHC Championships. Denver finally ended their three-year streak of losing in the NCHC Semifinal and after winning the only trophy that eluded their grasp a year ago, they’re heading into the NCAA Tournament with as much momentum as they could have hoped for.

“It’s definitely exciting for us,” junior forward Logan O’Connor said. “Obviously you want to be on the uprise going into the tournament and we’re really looking forward to having the tough tasks ahead of us. We feel as though we’ve played some of our best hockey all year the past couple weeks and we’re really looking to snowball that forward into next weekend.”

The Huskies are the top-ranked team in the country for a reason. They pass well, their offensive efficiency is off the charts, and really, they just score a lot of goals. But tonight at the Xcel Energy Center, Denver was simply the better team on the ice. Their forecheck was as good as it’s been all year, defensemen swarmed to the puck in the defensive zone, and in the end, they just outplayed the Huskies.

Freshman forward Kohen Olischefski may have played his best game of the season netting a first period goal on a weird bounce past Husky goalie David Hrenak and a second period assist on fellow freshman forward Ryan Barrow’s breakaway goal. He had that extra jump that head coach Jim Montgomery looks for and played responsible, energized hockey in all three zones.

“He was awesome, he was one of our best faceoff guys,” Montgomery said of Olischefski’s performance. “It’s really impressive to watch his development of his mental toughness. When he got here, if I looked at him wrong, he might hide in a hole for a month. I give him credit and [his] line credit because [SCSU] started Lizotte with Eyssimont against them and they’re like, ‘do you want me to change, coach?’ and I go ‘no, I want you out playing.’ That’s the confidence I’ve developed in them and it’s great to see in those freshmen.”

Olischefski led the way but it was the entire freshman class that paced the Pioneers on the scoresheet, accounting for six of Denver’s points. While it was the play of the “Big Three” that got the Pioneers to the title game, it was the young guns who got the job done to bring home the hardware with the 4-1 victory.

“It’s significant. The Olischefski-Barrow line has really been building here for two months. You can just see their confidence growing in the way they practice, the way they carry themselves, the way they walk around their teammates.”

This was exactly the kind of weekend the Pioneers were looking for heading into the tournament for all the marbles. After an up-and-down season that nearly came to an end at the hands of archrival Colorado College a week ago, the Pioneers came to St. Paul and made a statement with two very distinct victories. Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State.

The fact that they were able to win a tough, physical, grind-it-out type of game against the Bulldogs and then dominate against a potent, high-scoring Huskies team bodes very well going forward into the NCAAs. The Pioneers showed a level of versatility this weekend that will absolutely be necessary next weekend if they’re going to return to St. Paul in three weeks for the Frozen Four.

While the ultimate prize is still ahead of them, DU will revel in this dominant weekend of hockey that saw Henrik Borgström, Logan O’Connor, Ian Mitchell, and Tanner Jaillet named to the All-Tournament team.

“The impressive thing to me was the leadership by our captain and our assistant back there, [Adam] Plant,” Montgomery said. “Mitchell gets the points, but to me, Plant or Tariq Hammond were so impressive. I thought they should have been on the tournament team, one of them anyways.”

The slate will be wiped clean come tomorrow morning at 10 AM MT when the NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament bracket is announced on ESPNU. Denver, the fifth overall seed will likely be put in a region somewhere on the east coast. Regardless of which region they get, Denver should and will be seen as a favorite to win it all again. If they can keep playing ‘inspired hockey’ for the next four games, it will be hard to see them come back to Denver with anything less than a second straight title.