Denver earns NCHC best sixth-straight Frozen Faceoff trip by ending North Dakota’s season

Photo courtesy Shannon Valerio/DU Athletics

DENVER – It seemed that everyone believed deep down that the best-of-three NCHC Quarterfinal series between the archrivals #8 Denver Pioneers and #19 North Dakota Fighting Hawks would go three games and that there would be a series-deciding Game Three on Sunday night. Well, everyone except for those inside Denver’s locker room. On Saturday night, in front of 5,245 fans at Magness Arena, the Pioneers threw those three-game predictions out the window with a 4-2 victory over North Dakota to sweep the series, end the Fighting Hawks’ season, and earn a conference-best sixth-straight trip to the Frozen Faceoff.

“We needed to take a step, regardless of who we were playing,” DU head coach David Carle said of his team’s expectations coming into the weekend. “It’s hard to end anybody’s season. So from that standpoint, we’re really excited that we were able to pass this test.”

For a team that was quite literally playing for their season this evening, UND got off to a slow start. They struggled to mount offensive pressure and it looked like they were skating through molasses at times. Denver took full advantage of UND’s foggy play with a tip-in goal from Cole Guttman on the power play just 3:45 into the game. DU has struggled to get off to hot starts throughout the season so getting an early goal, especially on the power play, was about as perfect a start as the Pioneers could have asked for.

North Dakota didn’t stay down though. Halfway through the first period, they found the desperation that they lacked to that point. All of a sudden, DU found themselves in the dogfight that everyone expected to see in Game Two before Nick Jones finally broke through the brick wall named Filip Larsson late in the first period.

“I thought we got better as the game went on again tonight,” Carle said. “[UND] showed a ton of resiliency with what they’ve been through with injuries. They could have folded it up in February but their group never quit.”

As hard as North Dakota fought, Denver was able to hold the upper hand on the scoreboard thanks to a great tip-in by Colin Staub and a laser of a wrist shot by Jarid Lukosevicius in the second period. North Dakota dictated play but Denver dictated the scoreboard, which was the case all weekend. North Dakota fought to get the best scoring chances of the weekend but thanks to Denver’s defensive effort and Filip Larsson’s heroics in the crease, the Pios didn’t let the Hawks have the lead at all throughout the weekend.

“We talked a lot about executing more, especially in our d-zone and through the neutral zone,” senior captain Colin Staub said of the weekend’s strategy. “That was a big point for us to make sure that we tried to control the puck a little bit more. They still had a lot of pucks but we were able to get some clean clears which helped us break their pressure.”

Nick Jones added another goal in the third period to give North Dakota hope and keep Game Two close. But that was all the offense the Fighting Hawks could muster all weekend. And in the end, Jones’ second goal, the one that pulled UND back to within one in the third period, didn’t end up mattering thanks to Jaakko Heikkinen’s empty-netter that made Magness Arena erupt and leave UND fans’ seats empty.

Was there any added motivation at the prospect of ending North Dakota’s season? “Yeah!” sophomore defenseman Ian Mitchell said. “That was definitely something we talked about. Those are our archrivals and to be able to end a team’s season is something pretty special for us to do.”

Now, for a Denver team whose season will extend to the Frozen Faceoff next weekend and assuredly beyond, most of the bad taste from the sweep against CC a week ago is gone. The Pioneers are back to their winning ways and they now have the distinction of being the only program to participate in every Frozen Faceoff since the inception of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference six years ago.

But that’s not where Denver wants their 2018-19 story to end. They have a job to do in St. Paul and defend their 2017-18 conference tournament title. With St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth winning their series against Miami and Omaha, respectively, Denver’s path to a repeat is already difficult. But hey, this is the NCHC. The path was already difficult and step one is complete. Step two? Just win, baby.

If you plan to make the trip to St. Paul for the Frozen Faceoff, and I highly recommend making the trip as this is a very fun event, go to the NCHC’s website for more information and tickets.