Photo courtesy Shannon Valerio/DU Athletics
DENVER – The #8 Denver Pioneers didn’t register a shot against archrival #19 North Dakota until the 16:15 mark of the first period but on Friday night, in Game One of the NCHC Tournament Quarterfinals at Magness Arena, that didn’t matter. First and third period goals from Tyson McLellan and Griffin Mendel, respectively; 17 shots on goal; and a stellar performance from goaltender Filip Larsson were all the Pioneers needed to keep the Fighting Hawks at bay and take an important 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series with a 2-0 shutout victory.
It wasn’t pretty for the Pioneers but playoff hockey rarely is. Teams that do the best grinding the game out in the small areas and doing the little things usually win in the playoffs, especially when the teams are as evenly matched as the Pioneers and Fighting Hawks are. North Dakota outshot Denver 32-17 on the night but Denver tallied the game’s two goals.
“Would we have liked our start to generate some more shots and some offensive zone time early?” DU head coach David Carle pondered openly after the game. “Yeah, we would have for sure. But we bent and didn’t break in the first which gave us some confidence defensively and Filip shut the door. I thought we got better as the game went on.”
Sure, maybe Denver was able to capitalize on a tired UND team that had their flight diverted to Albuquerque before they embarked upon a two-day bus ride to Denver. Yes, it might be possible that UND goaltender Peter Thome couldn’t get into a rhythm because of a dearth of DU shots. Those are two plausible reasons for Denver’s success tonight and you could coherently argue both of those points. But they’re wrong.
The Pioneers took Game One because they outworked the Fighting Hawks defensively, took advantage of their own offensive opportunities, and Larsson was at his very best. Larsson was tested throughout the game by the Hawks and he passed with flying colors, as he has against North Dakota all season.
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) March 16, 2019
“For whatever reason, he likes playing this team,” Carle said of Larsson’s season success against UND. “I thought he was the best player on the ice tonight. He gave us a chance early when I thought we were bending but we weren’t breaking. The last 10 [minutes] of the first and the last 10 of the second was when I thought when Filip needed to be at his best.”
This game wasn’t a case of UND excuses. This was a blue-collar victory for the Pioneers from puck drop to final buzzer. The refs stayed out of the way for the most part (maybe a little too far out of the way at times) and Denver was able to go to work in front of an uncharacteristically friendly crowd for a DU-UND game.
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) March 16, 2019
McLellan’s first-period goal was the perfect metaphor for the game as a whole. Defenseman Michael Davies wrested the puck away from a Hawk defender along the boards and got it deep as you’re taught to do in the playoffs. Jarid Lukosevicius then took the puck away from another UND defender below the goal line before finding McLellan alone in the slot for a perfect one-timer. That play encapsulated everything Denver did tonight, especially in the small areas of the ice along the boards.
“[Guttman] made a good change when we were going up the ice,” McLellan said, recapping his goal. “[Davies] got the puck down to Luko and Luko does what he does and takes care of the puck and I was just screaming coming off the bench and found a spot and it went in…we were told we have to be better than [North Dakota] at [getting into the hard areas]. We can be a little bit better at taking it to them but we got the win and that’s all that matters.”
After losing the Gold Pan for the first time in five years last weekend, this game was always going to be an important barometer for the Pios as the postseason got underway. Denver was able to find that desperation and hard-working mentality to grind out a big Game One victory, a kind of victory that eluded their grasp a weekend ago. Denver’s work, of course, is not done. Nothing has been won yet. This was simply a step on the path back to the Frozen Faceoff. The Pioneers still have to win one more game this weekend to keep their hopes of repeating as NCHC champions alive. But if tonight was any indication, they’re ready, willing, and dare I say excited to put in the kind of work necessary to repeat.
Not only did the Pioneers take a series lead and give themselves a chance to make it a short weekend tomorrow night, they extended the ever-important Tenzer Streak to 18. 20 victories is a widely-accepted barometer for success in a given college hockey season and coming into the 2018-19 campaign, Denver had recorded 17-straight seasons with at least 20 wins. With the victory tonight, Denver improved to 20-10-5 on the season, thus extending the nation’s longest active such streak to 18. It’s a start and a great night for DU, but it’s not the end. The Pioneers still have their work cut out for them this weekend but if they can replicate their effort tonight, you’ll definitely want to book your trip to St. Paul.