Photo courtesy of Denver Athletics
As doubtful as it looked with 14 seconds left in regulation on Saturday night, the #4 Denver Pioneers’ (15-4-5, 5-3-4-3) unbeaten streak against the Nebraska Omaha Mavericks (9-10-4, 3-6-3-0) is still alive thanks to two ties at Baxter Arena this weekend. If it wasn’t for Bobby Brink’s goal with 13 seconds left in Game Two, the streak would have ended at 17. Instead, Brink scored on one hell of a wrist shot from the left circle to send the second game of the weekend to overtime and preserve the streak. Brink’s goal also gave the Pioneers a chance to salvage another two NCHC points on the weekend. in the end, thanks to both ties and subsequent NCHC overtime/shootout victories, Denver came back home with four of the six points at stake in Omaha.
Friday: Denver 1, Omaha 1 – Denver wins shootout
The star of the weekend was, without a doubt, Omaha goaltender Isaiah Saville and Friday night’s game was only his opening act. Denver outshot Omaha 13-4 in the first period and the only shot that made it through Saville was off the stick of Tyler Ward within the first five minutes. It would be Denver’s only marker of the night thanks in large part to Saville’s heroics.
But, to Omaha’s credit, it went beyond Saville. After the first period, the Mavericks controlled most of the play. They frustrated Denver’s breakout efforts in the neutral zone and did a great job keeping the Pioneers from sustaining much offensive pressure. In turn, the Mavs generated dangerous chance after dangerous chance. As good as Saville was, DU goaltender Magnus Chrona did him one better for the first two periods. Chrona didn’t give up a goal until early in the third period when Noah Prokop scored a shorthanded goal to tie the game.
“In the second and third period they did a better job of preventing us from breaking pucks out clean,” head coach David Carle said. “I thought our breakouts were great in the first, we had a lot of talk and we were a unit of five coming out (of our zone), but it seemed like in the second and third periods our talk dipped. It’s a 60-minute game. We loved our first period… we had some posts and some other really good looks throughout the night, they had some looks as well. At the end of the day, it’s a good hockey game and it probably ended like it should have.”
Neither team was able to score through 10 minutes of scoreless overtime hockey or the first four rounds of the shootout. While the game officially ended in a tie for NCAA purposes, it was freshman forward Brett Edwards who played hero for NCHC purposes in the fifth round. As they’re trying to gain ground in the conference standings, Denver certainly would have liked a full three points on this night with UMD losing and North Dakota only picking up two points against Miami. But given the balance of play and the much-improved Mavericks, winning two points was a fair, acceptable result.
Saturday: Denver 2, Omaha 2 – Denver wins in 3-on-3 overtime
If Friday night was an evenly matched game, Saturday’s was dominated by the Pioneers. And the best way to show it is this: Denver outshot Omaha 47-13 through 65 minutes of hockey and didn’t allow a Mav shot in NCAA overtime. This was peak Denver Hockey and they showed exactly what has made them so successful since ending their 1-4-3 first-half slide. The only problem was Denver had a minute-and-a-half stretch of sloppy play at the end of the first period that nearly derailed their hopes of coming home with more than two points. First, Justin Lee took an interference penalty behind Devin Cooley and DU’s net and Omaha converted a fluke bounce off the end boards into a Taylor Ward back-door goal. Then Ian Mitchell turned the puck over on a sloppy play 45 seconds later that directly led to a Tristan Keck goal. As well as Denver played for 18 and a half minutes in the first period, none of that mattered as they had to erase a 2-0 lead over the final 40 minutes of hockey.
Denver put their game into overdrive in the second and third periods in response to the two quick Mavs goals. Denver outshot Omaha 29-9 in those two periods but Saville was once again up to the task to keep Omaha in the game. Cole Guttman did manage to score a power-play goal on the exact type of play that the Pioneers needed to generate to beat Saville. It was a perfect tic-tac-toe passing play that gave Guttman the entire net to shoot at. That pulled the Pioneers to within a goal, but after that, Denver continued to settle for the outside looks that Omaha was giving them and it gave Saville nothing but easy saves.
As well as the Pioneers broke the puck out, as great as their zone entries were, and as sharp as their zone presence and cycling were, their net-front presence was severely lacking. Omaha’s defense played well to that end, keeping the puck out of the slot, but the Pioneers did the Mavericks a favor by settling for mostly outside looks. On the few times that Denver did get to the net front, Saville had to shine and he did. Tyson McLellan had a flurry of shots himself where he hit a post and Saville made three outstanding saves alone. That was the kind of play that Denver needed more of but didn’t generate enough of it until they pulled Cooley with less than 2 minutes left. Bobby Brink’s goal with 13 seconds left was the result of exactly that kind of play. They pulled Omaha’s defense out of position with great play down low and gave Brink an open look at the net with Saville’s feet moving. It was exactly the kind of sequence Denver had lacked to that point.
The Pioneers played a spectacular game and so did Saville. If not for Saville’s efforts, we’re not even discussing Denver’s netfront presence on this Sunday afternoon.
“Overall, we felt like if we kept playing we were eventually going to break through,” head coach David Carle said. “To go down 2-0 and for our guys to stick with it was a real positive. We’re obviously excited we were able to break through at the end of the game.”
In the end, Michael Davies scored in three-on-three overtime to give Denver another two points and Denver was able to come home with the same number of points they thought they might be dropping earlier in the evening. Coming home with four points after a road series in the NCHC is a good result, especially against a criminally underrated Omaha team.
Denver now travels to Oxford, Ohio to take on 7th-place Miami who just tied and lost to North Dakota. With Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota playing each other next weekend, it’s a prime opportunity for Denver to gain ground in the conference.