Pioneers’ slumping offense threatens postseason hockey hopes

Denver’s Jarid Lukosevicius leads the nation in game-winning goals Photo: Carol Mackay, University of Denver

It’s not a secret.

The #7 University of Denver hockey team’s offensive production has slumped, from scoring 3.5 goals per game in first 18 games of the season to 2.0 goals per game in the last 16 games (all of the last 16 were vs. NCHC opponents).  In short, this is a bad time of year to be slumping, and the recent loss of the Gold Pan to rival Colorado College, getting swept with only a single goal to show for last weekend’s nearly 60 DU shots-on-goal, has brought the current DU offensive problems into high relief.

Nevertheless, the Pioneers, still sitting at 19 wins, have put themselves in a very strong NCAA tournament selection position, with no worse than a current 97% mathematical probability of making the NCAA tournament, no matter what happens between now and tourney selection day.

Certainly, some of the offensive drop is easily explained, as the competition is much better now than it was early in the year. DU played an easier first half schedule, going undefeated in all 10 non-league games within the first 18 games of the season.  The final 16 games of much-tougher NCHC meat-grinder league games came in the back end of the year. The NCHC is the best league in the country once again, winning 68% of intra-league games it played this year, and the bottom four teams in NCHC are stronger than many teams in other leagues.

Additionally, Denver’s power play has now slumped to 44th in the nation, clicking at at only 15.7%, which is another large reason for the drop in offensive production. Expect that to be a huge area of focus for DU, as these critical scoring opportunities become even more precious in post-season play.

More recently, you can also see a precipitous drop in individual production for DU’s top five scorers in recent weeks:

Liam Finlay – 1 goal in the last 8 games

Emilio Pettersen – 0 goals in last 12 games

Jarid Lukosevicius  – 1 goal in the last 5 games

Cole Guttman – 1 goal in last 14 games

Ian Mitchell – 1 goal in last 15 games

Denver’s coaches and players are all acutely aware of the slump, and are very likely working hard on ways to rejuvenate the DU offense. We all saw DU try to reunite Lukosevicius, Guttman and Pettersen on the top line last weekend with little success, and we’ll see if the coaches stay with that strategy or go in a different direction.  Another wild card for DU remains Brett Stapely, who injured his upper body at Duluth in February and has yet to return to the DU lineup.  He was playing best hockey of the season when he was hurt, and if he comes back to the lineup, DU will have his additional creativity and distribution skills at center.

But the slumping offense won’t be an easy problem to fix.

Defenses tend to tighten at playoff time, as coaches try to reduce risk in a survive-and-advance mindset.  Players are also banged-up and worn down after a long season, often playing with injuries we seldom know about as fans. Hot-scoring rookies tend to slow down most, as weeks of opponent film study and league familiarity pile up against them. Finally, getting to the net front for tips, scrambles and rebounds can be much harder at this time of year, especially for smaller, finesse-oriented offenses like Denver.

The good news for Denver is that Pioneers’ defense and goaltending remains strong (10th) nationally at allowing just 2.15 goals per game, virtually identical defenses to league-leaders such as St. Cloud State (2.15) and Minnesota-Duluth (2.12).  Those numbers would be even better if DU played in a less difficult league, so 10th nationally is quite an accomplishment when you consider two-thirds of DU’s games came against NCHC foes.

But the problem remains that good defense won’t win every game if DU’s scoring remains stuck at two goals or less per game, and that’s why this DU team’s playoff future is quite precarious.

That said, a strong defensive ability can keep the Pioneers close in tight games, and Denver also has the national leader in game-winning goals (6) this season in senior Jarid Lukosevicius, who may be DU’s greatest clutch player of all time.

Moving to this weekend, DU has a 2-1-1 record against North Dakota this season. This is a UND team that, like DU, also has had problems scoring goals this year, but also has a strong defense (16th nationally, giving up 2.4 goals per game).  This UND team will be fighting for its playoff life this weekend, with only a 19% mathematical chance to make it to the big dance as of today, and must keep winning to have a shot. So expect a low scoring, grinding NCHC playoff series with a good 40% of the crowd in Magness supporting UND, as the Denver-based Fighting Hawk fans are bound to show up as they always do.  Denver fans, with DU students heading into final exams, may not be as numerous as they were during the regular season, so the remaining DU fans will need to be loud to help the team.

With DU failing to retain the Gold Pan last weekend, we expect that failure to chafe like a proverbial burr under the Pioneers’ collective saddles, which should make them play with more urgency and desperation against UND, a rival team that also usually forces DU into a hyper-competitive mindset.

All in all, for a DU team many expected to be in rebuilding mode under a new coach, the Pioneers have done extraordinarily well this season to be top four in the NCHC and seventh nationally at this time of year. Kudos to the players and coaching staff, who did a great job proving lots of people wrong this season, including this delighted pundit.

Let the playoffs begin…