Pioneers clip Fighting Hawks’ wings to take physical game one, end short losing streak

Photo courtesy Shannon Valerio/Denver Athletics

Even in a down year for one of the programs, any time the #7 Denver Pioneers and North Dakota Fighting Hawks take the ice, sparks and oftentimes fists fly. Friday night’s affair at Magness Arena was no different as the Pioneers withstood a physical assault from the Hawks and rode a superb goaltending performance by freshman Filip Larsson to take game one of this important rivalry series 2-1.

North Dakota is not the flashy green machine that college hockey fans are used to watching on an annual basis. They don’t have the kind of NHL-bound firepower that they usually do. Add to that Grant Mismash, one of the Hawks’ young star forwards, is out with an injury, North Dakota this year just doesn’t strike the kind of fear in their opponents that they usually do.

Denver, on the other hand, though they graduated a great senior class and lost their Big Three to entry-level NHL contracts, they’ve established themselves as a top-10 team in the country. The Pios have had a tendency to induce cardiac arrest in their fans, but with few exceptions, week in, week out, they’ve been able to get the job done. On paper, Denver is the stronger team and should not have any trouble dispatching the F’n Hawks.

But this is Denver-North Dakota. Throw all of that “on paper” crap out of the window. This is one of the most storied rivalries in the history of college hockey. These teams do not like each other. Intense hockey doesn’t do it justice. This game, one that Denver needed to win to jump back into the driver’s seat in the race for home ice in the first round of the NCHC Tournament, lived up to its billing in every way. It was physical and fans could feel the mutual hatred from the ice.

“It’s exactly what we talk about,” DU head coach David Carle said about how he prepared his players for this rivalry. “It was going to be a high level of intensity, it was going to be a lot of physicality, and a lot is on the line. There usually is when our two programs go against each other. That was a classic Denver-North Dakota game.”

As intense as the game was, Denver didn’t appear ready for it from the start. North Dakota dictated the pace for the entirety of the first period but it was Denver who entered the dressing room with the 1-0 lead thanks to a Jake Durflinger redirect in front of UND goaltender Adam Scheel. As happy as DU fans were about the lead, it felt precarious.

“I think we were still playing like we did in Western Michigan,” Larsson said. “We weren’t ready for such a good team. We got a wakeup call between the first and second periods by Coach so I think we woke up after that and the rest of the game, we played pretty good.”

It seems like every time the Pioneers start slowly at home, they rebound in the second period and look like a completely different team. Ryan Barrow less than three minutes into the second period before Denver took over the game as the game’s physicality ramped up. Denver and North Dakota took a combined five penalties in the second period including matching roughing minors for DU’s Erich Fear and UND’s Gavin Hain that saw Fear tackle Hain after the latter took out Larsson.

“I didn’t really know what happened,” Larsson said of the sequence that saw him get plowed into by Hain. “It for sure helps when you have a guy like Erich always standing up for me. Stuff like that can wake the entire team up.”

One of the bigger question marks coming into this weekend was Larsson’s inconsistent play over the recent weeks. He answered the bell loudly and successfully turning away 45 of 46 UND shots. The other, bigger question mark coming in was Denver’s special teams play. To call Denver’s power play and penalty kill units inconsistent in the second half would be giving them too much credit. Both units have been bad at times in the recent weeks. Tonight, Denver’s penalty kill was a perfect four-for-four and while the Pios did not score any goals on their five power plays, they generated 12 shots on the man-advantage and showed marked improvement.

“I thought it was a step in the right direction,” Carle said of his special teams play. “But ultimately, that’s all it is. We need to find a way to bear down and execute on the power play. It’s 2-0 and we get a chance in the third to make it three on the power play and we don’t execute. We need to continue to learn and grow and mature in those moments.”

It always feels good to beat North Dakota. It’s always great to send the Green Monsters home with an L. But in the grand scheme of things, there is a lot on the line for both teams this weekend. With the win, Denver jumped over North Dakota into fourth place in the NCHC and are two points clear of their northern rival. Another win tomorrow night gives Denver a five-point edge in the race for home ice in the first round of the NCHC Tournament. This weekend, it’s more than just the fun of Denver-North Dakota. There’s a lot more on the line this weekend than rivalry bragging rights. If you thought tonight was fun, just wait. Tomorrow night is a can’t-miss matchup.