Pioneers ride three-goal second, Lukosevicius hat trick to top Broncos in game one

Photo courtesy Shannon Valerio/Denver Athletics

10 of the 22 players listed on the #7 Denver Pioneers’ line chart on Friday night at Magness Arena got their first taste of NCHC hockey and for those 10 players, that taste was sweet, sweet victory. Jarid Lukosevicius tallied Denver’s second hat trick of the season with a goal in all three periods while Michael Davies and Liam Finlay each scored in the Pioneers’ rollercoaster three-goal second period to ice the Western Michigan Broncos in a 5-2 victory to open NCHC play.

Over the course of the first four games of the season, this young Denver team proved that it was more than capable of beating the middle of the road and straight-up bad teams that college hockey has to offer. With wins over Air Force, Alabama-Huntsville, and Alaska Fairbanks, Denver passed its easy early tests. This team’s first foray into NCHC play would serve as Denver’s first real test of the season and the Pioneers passed with flying colors.

“I really liked our puck pressure throughout the night,” DU head coach David Carle said. “I thought our puck play got better as the night went on but our puck pressure stayed the same and that allowed us to continue to generate turnovers.”

Western Michigan is well-known across the conference as a large, physical team with questionable ethics. Denver is none of those things. Denver’s first game(s) of NCHC play was a display of opposites and the smaller, faster team came out on top. Denver won most races to pucks, they won the vast majority of 50-50 battles, and used their size and speed to catch the Broncos napping in the offensive zone.

Take Liam Finlay’s sixth goal of the season, for example. The 5’7″, 154 lbs forward started his shift, fielded a pass from Davies, skated through the entirety of Western Michigan’s mostly stationary defense and buried his shot in the corner.

“We want to protect pucks, we want to hang on to pucks,” Carle said. “I think Liam Finlay showed our team what can happen when you do that. Also in the first period, Colin Staub cuts back, someone else comes to him, Ian Mitchell ends up wide open where [WMU goaltender Ben] Blacker makes a great save.”

Finlay’s goal was emblematic of a larger theme that presented itself throughout the first of two games at Magness Arena this weekend. Denver, as has been the case for the last half-decade, was at a huge size disadvantage. Western is large and they understandably attempted to use that size to bully Denver off of pucks. It was to no avail. Denver was quicker, more tenacious and, dare I say, more relentless on and off the puck.

“Ian did everything on my second goal,” Lukosevicius said. “I didn’t have to do anything. He did it all. That guy should make World Juniors. If he doesn’t make World Juniors, I’m going to be upset with Team Canada.”

The Pioneers, especially the young players like Emilio Pettersen, Brett Stapley, and Cole Guttman, are going to see a lot more hockey like they saw tonight over the next four-plus months. What they proved tonight is not only that they can skate with the other teams in the NCHC but they can beat them, regardless of their size disadvantage. Veteran leaders like Lukosevicius, Finlay, and senior captain Colin Staub will lead the way and show them how it’s done.

“We were just attacking, we were rolling, all the lines were buzzing, I mean Luko had a hell of a game,” Finlay said. “It’s good to see those young guys rolling as well.”

Tonight, this young group of Pioneers showed up ready for the speed and intensity of NCHC hockey and they punched the big, bad Broncos in the mouth. Tomorrow night, Western Michigan will respond with a heightened level of intensity and Denver will have to respond in kind if they’re going to seal the sweep in their first NCHC series of the season.

“They’re faster than what they showed tonight,” Carle said of the Broncos’ performance tonight. “That wasn’t their best game, I don’t think. We certainly expect them to come with a better effort tomorrow night.”