#5 Pioneers return to St. Paul determined to defend 2018 NCHC title

ST. PAUL, Minn. – In a year that has been defined by change – both behind the bench with new head coach David Carle and on the ice replacing three of the most dominant players in college hockey – the #5 Denver Pioneers find themselves in somewhat unexpected familiar territory in St. Paul. The Pios are back in St. Paul at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff with a chance to defend their conference tournament title from a year ago.

The narrative of DU’s 2018-19 campaign has not changed from the moment Jim Montgomery took the head coach job with the Dallas Stars after DU stars Henrik Borgström, Dylan Gambrell, and Troy Terry decided to leave the program early for NHL contracts. The narrative that the Pioneers just wouldn’t be as good without the tutelage of Montgomery and the help of Denver’s Big Three™ didn’t go away even as the Pioneers climbed in the national polls and stayed in the top 5-7, peaking at #3 in January, throughout the season.

Some perspective, though. For a program as historically dominant as Denver, change is often the only constant. Programs that attract the most talented players always have to deal with early departures. Sure, coaches leaving the collegiate ranks for the NHL is a fairly new phenomenon but this wasn’t the first time Denver had to deal with significant roster turnover. But this year, it wasn’t just the fact that they were losing players that made it look like Denver was due for a UND-like down year. It was the caliber of early departures combined with the senior class that graduated after the 2017-18 campaign that soured early expectations.

And yet, despite that significant upheaval, here we are, back in St. Paul for the Frozen Faceoff and DU has a serious shot at defending their title from a year ago. Denver is one of the final four NCHC teams still playing hockey for a conference-best sixth straight time. The Pioneers are fresh off of a first-round sweep of archrival North Dakota after a rough weekend against fellow Frozen Faceoff team Colorado College. And on top of it all, the Pioneers are competing Minnesota Duluth – their Frozen Faceoff semifinal opponent – for a #1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. This is a far cry from what the pundits (this writer included) predicted would happen.

“It shows Denver’s process and it shows how consistent our program is at bringing in high-level talent and developing players,” DU senior captain Colin Staub said of the Pioneers’ ability to get back to the Frozen Faceoff. “A lot of people saw those guys leaving, saw Coach Montgomery leaving and didn’t think we were going to be here. It gave us a chip on our shoulder all year and it was one of our goals to make sure we showed up here.”

If the Pioneers needed something else to add to their resume to cement their place atop the college hockey hierarchy, this year would certainly be that. Against what appeared to be all odds, Denver extended the Tenzer Streak to 18, went unbeaten in nonconference play, and swept a North Dakota team that outshot them 74-35 over the course of the two games to get back to the Frozen Faceoff.

“It’s a lot of the same,” DU head coach David Carle said of being at the Frozen Faceoff again but now, in a head coaching role. “This is a place that we always want to be at. Obviously it’s our sixth time in six years and we’re really proud of that feat. For us, it’s business as usual. We expect to be here, wanted to be here at the start of the year.”

Maybe expectations should have been adjusted halfway through the season. Maybe expectations should have been more positive even before the season started. The reality is, the Pioneers took those expectations and shoved them right back in the faces of those who had them.

“It says a lot about our leadership and our coaching staff,” sophomore alternate captain Ian Mitchell said. “The process remained the same. It didn’t really matter who we had in the lineup, we were still playing Denver hockey. That’s been the story of our season.”

As exciting and unexpected as Denver’s path back to St. Paul has been, there is a lot of hockey left to be played, though. Hell, Denver hasn’t even played a game on this stage yet this season and is just 6-7-2 against ranked teams this year. Their path only gets harder from here. They’re going to play the country’s best competition this weekend and then have to end more seasons a week later if they are going to make it back to the Frozen Four.

But one thing is for sure, don’t underestimate these Pioneers. This season has already shown that they’re more than capable of overcoming odds to win games they weren’t supposed to. Minnesota Duluth is just another team in their way this year. Don’t be surprised if Denver finds a way to win the NCHC again this year. But don’t you dare bet against them. They’re all too used to it.

3 thoughts on “#5 Pioneers return to St. Paul determined to defend 2018 NCHC title”

  1. As one of the people who helped put that “chip on the shoulder” for DU by suggesting that DU would be a .500 team this year, let me be the first to congratulate the Pioneers for proving us doubters to be wrong, and how I LOVE being wrong if DU continues to win…

    Looking back on that prediction, it was not only based on losing a team-record 5 talented underclassmen to NHL contracts (all of whom have played in the NHL since) as well as a terrific head coach to the NHL (replaced by a young man who had never been a head coach before), but also losing a Mike Richter trophy-winning goaltender in Tanner Jaillet to graduation, which people can seem to forget. Very few teams in NCAA history have bounced back into top 10 status after losing so much, hence the prediction.

    I am so proud of David Carle, and how he has stepped up this year to perform like a 40-year old coach, not a 28 or 29 year old. His poise, intelligence, perfect handling of the media and his ability to sustain DU’s excellence with 19 underclassmen is nothing short of fantastic. He is a role model for these young men, and they have responded to him in a powerful way.

    On the other hand, I also predicted DU would lose the Gold Pan to a resurgent CC program, and that prediction unfortunately came true. I know that first trophy DU plays for each year was an important goal for DU, and when they lost it this year to CC, it seemed to fuel more scoring against North Dakota the following weekend. So, if DU is unable to also defend it’s NCHC title this weekend in St. Paul, I expect DU to use that second trophy disappointment to fuel their NCAA tournament dreams in the coming weeks.

    While the Pios have had many tough times in the second half of this season, what is exciting about this team is the goaltending and defense are as now good as anyones, and while the scoring depth may not be that high, this Pioneer team does have the greatest clutch scorer in DU history in Jarid Lukosevicius, who has the all-time DU record for game winners and is chasing the NCAA record, as well. It’s not a coincidence that DU is 10-0-2 when Luko scores, and with up to only six games remaining in his college career, I am sure he’s going to give it his best shot.

    Go Pios!

  2. I shared your opinion for the same litany of reasons.And isn’t it wonderful to be proved wrong! The biggest surprise is the play of Devin Cooley. Jaillet graduates, Rasmusson goes back to the USHL, and the top recruited goalie is injured in the preseason. Enter Cooley with his 20 minutes of Division I game experience. He stood taller than his 6′ 4″ inch frame.Lowest GAA and highest save % in the conference –not bad for a “20 minute wonder”!

  3. It should be a very compelling weekend of hockey. DU played Duluth 4 times this year and went 2-2. GF 8, GA 9. Pretty even matchup. If the Pios are able to play the way we’re accustomed to see them play defensively, I like their chances.

    After the Gold Pan debacle two weeks ago, I would love for DU to get another crack at CC.

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