#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.