Pioneers bitten by Bulldogs in Frozen Faceoff semis, will not defend 2018 title

Photo courtesy Maddie MacFarlane

ST. PAUL, Minn – Hunter Shepard showed the NCHC why he was named the conference goaltender of the year as he and the #4 Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs shut out the #5 Denver Pioneers 3-0 on Friday Night at the Xcel Energy Center in the Frozen Faceoff semifinal. For the Pioneers, it was a tough outcome after sweeping North Dakota to get to this point but in a tight game with a number of weird bounces, the game really could have gone either way, despite what the score indicated. It just so happened that the Bulldogs got the bounces and the Pioneers did not.

Coming into this game, it was all but assumed that the Pioneers and Bulldogs would skate to a low-scoring, tight game. All four of the other games played between these two teams this year were that way, so why would this one be any different? And through the first two periods of the game, with no score, all of the predictions and suspicions were confirmed. Both teams had generated a few genuine chances but the defensive efforts prevailed.

“I thought it was a good hockey game, tight-checking and similar to most of our games against Duluth,” DU Head Coach David Carle said. “There wasn’t a lot of time and space out there and it came down to execution. They made one more play than we did and ultimately that’s all that was needed.”

It wasn’t until the first minute of the final period that Cole Koepke drew first blood for the Bulldogs after a sequence that saw DU goaltender Filip Larsson get a bit pushed around. While it required a lengthy review, it was determined that Larsson was not interfered with and the goal stood. As it turns out, Koepke’s goal was all the offense the Bulldogs needed to advance to the Frozen Faceoff championship game to face St. Cloud State on Saturday night.

Koepke and Louie Roehl added empty-net goals in the final two minutes of the game to seal Denver’s fate, send the Pioneers to the third-place game against Colorado College, and raise more questions about Denver’s struggling offense.

“Would we have liked to score more goals?” Carle asked to no one in particular after the game. “Yeah, we would. It’s a game of inches and we’re playing against the best conference in college hockey. There’s not a lot of open ice regardless of who you’re playing. It’s hard to score goals in this league. I give Duluth a lot of credit tonight. They’re a team that defends really well and they take away time and space. That’s a lesson for us and we need to continue to learn and grow.”

As well as UMD played, the issue remains that for the past three weeks, North Dakota included, Denver’s offense has struggled to generate sustained offensive pressure and it has hurt them at the times that mattered most. It’s easy to look ahead to next season when it appears that Denver will have some offensive reinforcements coming in but there is still hockey left to be played this year. The Pioneers still have to play the Tigers tomorrow afternoon. They still have an NCAA Tournament to play. And the Pioneers have to find an answer to those offensive problems if they’re going to go on a run over the next month.

“It’s the third-place game but we have to keep growing as a group,” Tyson McLellan said of tomorrow’s game against CC. “It’s still a young team, still learning. We have to come out, take it to them in the first period and grow and score those big goals so we can keep our season going.”

It may be of little comfort for Pioneers fans that no matter what happens tomorrow, DU’s season will not end. The Pioneers have all but clinched a spot in the NCAA Tournament. The only remaining question is where they will be seeded and in which region. However, it does not matter who you play if you don’t score goals. And that is the much larger issue at stake for the Pioneers.

It’s time to turn the page and get some revenge on the Tigers for two weekends ago. There is still hockey left to be played and goals left to be achieved. Tomorrow is an excellent place to fix the offensive issues and enter the NCAA Tournament on a high note.