Denver Hockey Frozen Faceoff Semifinal Preview: Minnesota Duluth

The No. 5 Denver Pioneers will battle the defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs for a chance to defend their 2017-18 NCHC title

It was a wild weekend of hockey last Friday and Saturday when the Pioneers closed the door on the North Dakota Fighting Hawks’ season.  There wasn’t much room to skate and it seemed like players were getting hit immediately after they touched the puck.  But persistence and a little puck luck propelled the Pioneers to their sixth straight Frozen Faceoff appearance.  Denver will play the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs Friday night for the opportunity to meet either St. Cloud State or Colorado College in the final.  Yes, you read that right…Colorado College.

Denver may be on a high from eliminating North Dakota from playoff contention, but there is much work left to do.  They could potentially have to beat the No. 4 and No. 1 ranked teams in the country.  They could also meet their bitter rivals, Colorado College, in the final who swept the Pioneers the last series of the regular season.

The Pioneers and Bulldogs met four times this season and split both series.  However, in every game the Pioneers were out-shot.  Even in the North Dakota series, Denver was held to very few shots but they made the shots they had count.  UMD is a team that probably doesn’t want to skate as much with Denver as the Fighting Hawks.  Their low-risk defensive game will put a strong focus on keeping the Pios pinned deep.

In his scrum before leaving for St. Paul, head coach David Carle spoke about the growth of his young team and the tradition of winning at DU.  He mentioned that the season hasn’t been perfect but his team has been able to weather the storm of growing pains.  He notes that the team has come together and they understand what needs to be done in the moment.

” Players come to Denver to try to hang banners and win championships.  Our team is no different.” – Pioneers head coach David Carle

Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs (23-11-2)

The Bulldogs, like Denver last season, were predicted to have a chance shot at repeating as national champions.  Their lineup is stacked with NHL prospects and some of the best Minnesota-born players.  One thing that sticks out is that they seem to have an innate ability to win close games.  They are 8-5 in one-goal games this season, and more impressive they are 20-2-0 when scoring first.

This Thursday, the Bulldogs claimed a few individual accomplishments at the NCHC Awards.  Hunter Shepard, Justin Richards, and Scott Perunovich won goaltender of the year, defensive-forward of the year, and offensive-defenseman of the year respectively.  But they aren’t the only guys on the team who can make you pay.  Duluth got a lot of help from freshman Noah Cates who chipped in 22 points this season.  Their commitment to defense shows by the fact that none of their starters have a negative plus/minus.

In all of Hunter Shepard’s 11 losses this season, he has never seen more than 25 shots.  The Bulldogs don’t give up a lot of clean looks to the net so the Pioneers must take lanes when they have them.  Denver has been known to look for the extra pass, but this isn’t the game to do that.  Everything but the kitchen sink has to go towards the net to challenge Shepard.  Rebounds and bad angle shots are ways the Pioneers can jump ahead early in what will most likely be an uphill battle trying to keep Duluth’s forwards contained.

Prediction –  Game will be decided in OT 

The Bulldogs will have a lot of fans at the Xcel Energy Center and it will certainly be a hostile environment for the Pioneers Friday night.  The key will have to be the performance in net from either Filip Larsson or Devin Cooley, depending on who Carle starts.  Can he and the defensive unit hold Duluth to limited high danger opportunities, and can the Pioneers keep the game close?  Or will the Minnesota Duluth continue their success on the ice where they won their national title last year?  I was called a chicken last week for not making a prediction and I will be one yet again this week.  But this game just feels like regulation won’t be enough to decide a winner for the last two national champions.

Twitter Follow – @UMDMensHockey

Where to Watch/Listen

Friday – 6:38pm MT, CBS Sports Network, ESPN Denver 1600