Photo courtesy of Shannon Valerio/Denver Athletics
DENVER – Mired in a 1-4-3 slump, the #8 Denver Pioneers were in need of a spark, anything at all that might give them some extra motivation. After an underwhelming two games in the desert against Arizona State that saw Denver lose to and tie the Sun Devils, the Pioneers – thanks to a stellar shutout performance by goaltender Devin Cooley – got back on track in the first game of the season against the unranked archrival Colorado College Tigers with a 3-0 victory at Magness Arena. The win gave Denver the early edge in earning back the coveted Gold Pan trophy, awarded annually to the winner of the DU-CC series.
It’s no secret that the Pioneers have, to put it softly, struggled over the past two months. The Pios’ top line wasn’t producing, turnovers have been a serious problem, and wins have come at a premium. And it seemed DU’s problems came to a head last weekend during the weekend trip to ASU. Denver got outplayed on Friday at the Sun Devils’ youth hockey rink before running into an on-fire goaltender in Evan DeBrouwer on Saturday night. It’s easy to write off a rough stretch of play against teams like Minnesota Duluth, North Dakota, and Western Michigan but to see the struggles continue against ASU was, if not a cause for panic, certainly a red flag.
Enter the Battle for the Gold Pan – with the Pioneers on the rough end of the series for the first time in five years. Would the Pioneers from last Saturday show up and skate the Tigers out of Magness Arena as they have done so many times in the past six years? Or would the Pioneers continue their first-half slide? The first matchup of the year with the Tigers offered the Pioneers an opportunity and the Pioneers finally took advantage.
If the first two periods went like the past two months have for the Pioneers, they made up for it and then some in the third period. DU and CC skated to a scoreless deadlock through the first 40 minutes with the Pioneers owning much of the game – as they did against the Sun Devils on Saturday. But again, as has been the case so many times this year, Denver could not find twine until the third period when the Pios erupted for three goals.
Emilio Pettersen opened the game’s scoring with a great effort that culminated in a ‘goal-scorer’s goal’ to get the Pioneers off the schneid. It was a power-play marker and after the Tigers’ defense had frustrated the Pioneers’ offense with blocked pass after blocked pass and blocked shot after blocked shot (CC finished the game with an aesthetically pleasing 24 blocked shots and 24 shots on goal). Thanks to Devin Cooley’s perfect performance in the crease – including a save of the year candidate in the second period to keep the game scoreless – that was all the scoring Denver would need.
But a few minutes later Cole Guttman added some insurance with his third goal in his past two games with a gritty, patient effort that saw him wait out CC goaltender Matt Vernon and shoot the puck past Vernon’s outstretched glove and into the net. All of a sudden, an inconsistent Denver scoring line that had struggled to generate much of anything over the past few weeks erupted for two goals in the span of four and a half minutes. Brett Edwards added an empty-net goal with a minute left to salt away the DU victory and seal an important win for the Pioneers – their first since a 6-1 drubbing of Western Michigan before Thanksgiving.
This game was a perfect microcosm of Denver’s season to this point. When they’re playing with urgency and purpose, they’re difficult to stop. But when they’re not, when they’re playing lazy, uninspired hockey, it opens the door for their opponent to take advantage and pull off the upset. Denver had stretches of play against the Tigers tonight that put their recent ailments on full display. And CC nearly took advantage. But at other times and for most of the game, Denver’s urgency dictated the game and didn’t let the Tigers breathe. That ended up being the difference.
It’s hard to overstate this matchup. Colorado College is no longer what they’ve been for the past half-decade. They’re a good team with speed and skill if a bit inexperienced. Denver is a national title contender that fell on hard times. This was a fragile matchup for the Pioneers. A loss might have sent them into an irreversible tailspin but a win, like the one they earned tonight, might have been exactly what they needed to erase the memories of the 1-4-3 stretch and turn the page heading into the holiday break and second half of the season.
Yes, there is another game tomorrow and Denver has generally fared well on the big ice of the World Arena. But in tonight’s game, at home, in front of a large, friendly crowd, Denver not only pulled into the Gold Pan driver’s seat but earned an important three points in the NCHC standings to start making up some lost ground. Baby steps are what it takes to get things back on track and tonight’s win might have just been the Pios’ first step.
As Cooley as the other side of the pillow! 🙅♂️
— The NCHC (@TheNCHC) December 14, 2019
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) December 14, 2019
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) December 14, 2019
Colorado College 0
David Carle postgame: https://t.co/p2yqqTyGyI
— LetsGoDU (@LetsGoDU) December 14, 2019