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.

6 thoughts on “Denver earns NCHC best sixth-straight Frozen Faceoff trip by ending North Dakota’s season”

  1. Anytime you can sweep North Dakota, it’s happy days in Pio land, and it was especially great to see Luko and the first line step up and score the game winner when DU really needed that third goal, as UND out-hustled, out-hit and outshot the Pios in a desperate attempt to keep its season alive.

    That sweep is certainly something to build on for the NCHC playoffs, and Larsson got the job done again in the nets. A nice way to send the home fans home happy, and to clinch an NCHC semifinal appearance and an NCAA tourney spot, too. DU survived.

    North Dakota’s performance tonight was emblematic of their whole season – hustle, hard work, good gaps, strong defense, never quitting and just not getting enough scoring. I can’t remember a UND team that shot so much and scored so little. I also can’t remember a UND team that lost to Canisius twice, either, so I am looking at UND with a big asterisk this year…

  2. Yes, everyone, thought it would go three games. You and who else = everyone???

    Anyway, great job by the Pios. So satisfying to end those jokers’ season, and move on. Not sure that this team has what it takes to win two games in the NCAA tourney. But this weekend at least provides some hope. 4 goals is progress, and there is no question about who gets the starts in goal.

    BTW, they must change the name of the NCHC final four. What a joke to incorporate the word frozen into it. Confuses the casual fans, pisses off some long time fans, and dilutes the name of the REAL final four in college hockey. Sad, lame, and doesn’t do anything to create additional interest in the NCHC tournament. Drop it.

  3. With a number of traditional powers slipping this season, David Carle did a great job of coaching this season. To have a young coach with such a great start to his career spells good things going forward. And his young squad will only get better.

  4. We all survived another weekend hosting the dreadful North Dakota Sue fans. What they lack in sophistication they make up for in volume.

    1. They do have plenty of sophisticated fans (as well as many drunken fans), as they have the largest fan base in college hockey – a flagship State school, a great hockey history, and a specialized intensity born from small town geographic isolation. A lot of them happen to live here in Colorado, too, which is a last-20-year thing. I know it grates a lot of Denver fans, who don’t like seeing their arena 40% occupied by green people. But at the same time, what college program would not love a fan base that size?

  5. That was fun. Watching a sweep of UND was a lot of fun. It was another hard-fought gritty win for DU. As expected, UND pushed really hard again, threw a lot of rubber at the net, and had the Pios on their heels quite a bit. But Larsson and crew were up the task. On the weekend DU was outshot 74-35 and spent a lot of time defending, as UND had the puck an awful lot. None of those stats matter, though, as DU got the Ws. Whatever it takes this time of year.

    After seeing this UND team four times in person this season, it’s clear that while they have a lot of talent and depth, as usual, especially defensively, they just don’t their typical number of elite goal scorers. But they are still a very formidable opponent.

    On the Frozen Faceoff.

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