Photo courtesy of Denver Athletics
It’s been quite the start to 2020 for the #5 Denver Pioneers. Dating back to December, the Pios haven’t lost in their last 11 games. And last week’s series against Miami may have been one of their strongest defensively. Holding the RedHawks to under 23 shots in both contests, Denver possessed the puck well and only took three penalties all weekend keeping Miami’s hot power play off the ice. When David Carle met with the media this week, he said the difference between his team now and a few months ago is that they’re better at growing after each game. Now, Denver faces #10 Minnesota Duluth and #2 North Dakota in back-to-back series and will have an opportunity to keep this roll going against two of the best teams in the country.
After a rough patch in November, Pioneers freshman goaltender Magnus Chrona has returned to form winning six of his last seven games. It’s been a big help getting junior Devin Cooley back to help share the workload and it’s evident in Chrona’s numbers. Now at 13-4-3 with a GAA of just over 2 and a .919 save percentage, Chrona seems like he’s gotten his groove back since winning his first seven games of the season. It seems his magic number is around 30 shots and he gives the Pioneers a good chance to win. It has also helped that the Pioneers have improved on their shot suppression recently.
You can’t recap the Pioneers without talking about Kohen Olischefski. The junior forward is having a breakout season already with a career-high 17 points. When you play teams like UMD or North Dakota, most of the time the team that gets production from their depth wins. It’s really nice to see players like Olischefski get rewarded with top-line minutes and giving Denver a different look offensively.
— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) January 28, 2020
Another player worth mentioning is sophomore forward Brett Stapley. Having already passed his freshman point total of 19, Stapley has shown he has some of the best hands on the team and now the points show it. With 16 assists this season and a plus/minus of 12, Stapley has quietly become a top playmaker for Denver. The Montreal Canadiens prospect has nine points in his last seven games and could be a huge difference-maker in the upcoming series with Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota.
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) January 30, 2020
Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs (13-9-2)
An interesting thing about when the Bulldogs and Pioneers play is that it seems like everyone is excited. You would think that there would be some bad blood, but it seems like both teams are beyond that point. The amount of respect that both coaches have for the opposite program is tremendous, and it’s truly amazing that these schools who have been so successful in recent years play in the same conference. It makes for great hockey when Denver and Minnesota Duluth collide with both teams knowing they have something to prove.
After a rough start to the season, UMD had its own win streak of five games in December taking down a tough Omaha team and Merrimack College. The Bulldogs haven’t needed dynamic offense in recent years because of their strong defensive core and elite goaltender in Hunter Shepard, but the development of the Cates brothers has been a big positive this season. Jackson and Noah get to play on the same line together like how the Sedin twins wreaked havoc on the Pacific Division for the Vancouver Canucks. With a combined 43 points, the Cates brothers have established themselves as a threat skating alongside forward Nick Swaney.
For maybe one last year, UMD will have arguably the best top-three defenseman in the NCHC with Scott Perunovich, Nick Wolff, and Dylan Samberg. They represent a power-play quarterback, a shutdown defenseman, and dynamic two-way defenseman, all of whom have made it incredibly difficult for Denver in years past. Top that off with Shepard in net, it’s always a challenge to score against the Bulldogs. Shepard isn’t having a season like the last two championship seasons for Duluth but his experience is invaluable to UMD. It should be noted, however, that even though they traveled with the team, it’s currently unknown whether Perunovich and Samberg will play this weekend.
Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin and forwards Kobe Roth and Cole Koepke met with the media on Wednesday to talk about their upcoming series against Denver.
Scott Sandelin on what stands out about Denver
“There’s a lot. You saw a little bit of it last year when they were a bit younger team but they’ve got skill. I think defensively they’re strong. I think offensively they’re one of the best puck support teams. They play well as five. They play good in small areas. They pressure pucks extremely well. They don’t give you a lot of time and right now nobody’s really talked about them. They’ve gone on quietly on a nine or ten-game winning streak. They’re well coached and play an up-tempo game that’s good off the rush and good in the offensive zone. They like to move around and can activate and play as five as well as anybody in the country. They are going to pose certain challenges defensively if you’re not sharp and if you don’t take care of pucks. They’re a team that can make you pay.”
Forward Kobe Roth on facing Denver
“Super excited for this weekend. Obviously Denver is always a tough team. It’s tough to play there especially with them above us in the standings right now. It sets up for a perfect weekend and hopefully we can get two big wins.”
Forward Cole Koepke on lessons learned from playing Denver
“It was quite a while ago. They were ranked pretty high like they are now and were on a big win streak. We know what kind of team they are. They’re fast, super skilled, and obviously they’re just a great hockey team. We ended up playing a good weekend with them. We beat them on Friday and lost in a shootout on Saturday so I think we just need to go in with that same mindset that they’re going to come out hard and we’ll need to match that if we want to have a chance down there.”
Prediction – Denver sweeps
The Pioneers would like nothing better than to take a couple of games from UMD at home and inch closer to the first-place Fighting Hawks who they play next weekend in Grand Forks. With Denver not having lost a game since early December and Duluth going 1-3-1 in their last five, it just seems like these teams are going in different directions. If the Bulldogs are going to challenge Denver, it’s going to be all about Scott Sandelin’s gameplan. The UMD bench boss understands and respects Denver enough to know where the cracks are in the sidewalk for the Pioneers and will hope to exploit that. It will be hard doing that at Magness where Denver is 10-2-1 this season.
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Where to Watch/Listen
Friday – 7:07pm MT – tv: Altitude 2 / NCHC.tv radio: 104.3 The Fan
Saturday – 7:07pm MT tv: Altitude 2 / NCHC.tv radio: 104.3 The Fan