Just a few weeks ago, DU was riding high on an 11-game unbeaten streak. They dominated lesser opponents like CC and Miami while demonstrating their ability to play well late in games to close them out or even come back when they had to. Everything was going about as well as Denver could have wanted it to…until it wasn’t. Now, four straight losses against Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota later and with just six games left in the regular season, the Pioneers and their championship aspirations are at a crossroads. There are some hard truths that they have to face and address if they are going to get things back on track and punch their ticket to Detroit in April.
I know what you’re thinking, though. It’s just four games! No reason to panic, these are still the Pioneers who have been to three of the last four Frozen Fours! They’re at #5 in the Pairwise rankings and, barring an unprecedented catastrophe, they’re a lock for the NCAA Tournament. They’re hosting the Loveland Regional and their path to Detroit at that stage is relatively easy! And I hear you. I get your logic. But the reality is, it’s just not as simple as that for these Pios. Denver’s season has been one of runs, streaks, and some concerning contrasts. With that has come a fair share of bad, a lot of good, and at least some wariness looking ahead at this final stretch of the season.
It’s always better to receive bad news first, right? Right. So here we go, jumping right in. There are three teams currently ahead of the Pioneers in the NCHC standings: first-place North Dakota, second-place Minnesota Duluth, and third-place Western Michigan. The Pioneers’ record against those three teams is an abysmal 1-7-2 (their record in the rest of their games is 16-1-3). What does this tell us, exactly? Quite simply, it tells us that Denver is struggling against elite teams. It’s great to see Denver beat up on CC and Miami and Niagara. That’s a nice confidence boost, right? And teams like Denver, of course, cannot afford to lose to those kinds of teams. But when the rubber meets the road against the caliber of teams that they will no doubt have to face over the coming two months, they haven’t been getting the job done.
It’s hard to point to any single issue to diagnose what’s going wrong against these elite teams – and don’t fool yourself, Western Michigan is elite. Denver hasn’t been bitten by the injury bug to this point, at least not the same degree as other teams, especially during these series. The Pioneers have played great defense throughout the year and goaltending has been solid game in and game out with flashes of greatness. And in those 10 games, Denver has allowed an average of 3 goals per game which, granted, isn’t good, but it certainly is not bad against teams of that caliber. Allowing three goals per game is enough to keep a team like Denver – with the kind of talent they boast – in every game they play.
What it seems to come down to, thanks to the process of elimination, is Denver’s offense…or lack thereof. In their 10 games against UND, UMD, and WMU, Denver has averaged fewer than two goals per game and that includes an offensive outburst in Denver’s 6-1 win – and apparent outlier – over the Broncos back in November. Ian Mitchell, Emilio Pettersen, Cole Guttman, and Bobby Brink – arguably Denver’s top four offensive contributors – combined for just 20 points against those three teams this year. When your top scorers aren’t scoring and your secondary scorers aren’t able to pick up the slack, allowing three goals per game is all that’s needed to sink your team.
Literally everything else. As mentioned above, Denver is an astounding 16-1-3 against all other opponents. 16-1-3! As long as Denver isn’t playing any of the three teams above them in the standings, Denver is probably going to win and they’re going to look like a Frozen Four-caliber team while doing it. Against CC in December – coming off of the 1-4-3 stretch against UMD, UND, WMU, and Arizona State – Denver looked like they had solved whatever previously ailed them and stepped on the Tigers’ throats en route to an easy sweep to essentially kick off an 11-game unbeaten streak.
Over the next couple of months against UMass-Amherst, St. Cloud State, Omaha, and Miami, Denver didn’t slow down. They dominated the opposition and even though there were times the puck wouldn’t go in (remember Omaha and Isaiah Saville’s heroics?), it was very clear that Denver was the better team. In these games, the Pioneers looked a hell of a lot like the team that started the season 8-0-0, not the team that skidded to that 1-4-3 stretch. In these other 20 games, Denver is averaging nearly four goals per game, almost a full two goals per game more than they scored against the Bulldogs, Fighting Hawks, and Broncos.
It’s during these games, when everything is clicking and DU is having their way with lesser opponents, that fans want to believe the real Pioneers are on full display. As easy as it would be to follow this line of thinking since Denver has played this way for 20 games – two-thirds of their season to this point – all games and matchups are not created equal.
This season has been one of odd contrasts for the Pioneers. On paper, they’re an elite, national title-contending team with all the pieces they need to make a deep run in March and April. But on the ice, they’re a notch below North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth, two teams with bonafide national title aspirations. Where these teams should be Denver’s peers, they have emerged a class above the Pioneers.
With six regular-season games left against Miami (home), St. Cloud State (away), and Colorado College (home-and-home), Denver almost certainly will win 20 games to extend the Tenzer Streak to 19 straight seasons with at least 20 wins. They’re probably going to win back the Gold Pan in the final weekend of the regular season. And they’re almost assuredly going to earn home-ice advantage for the first round of the NCHC Tournament. These are all nice things but really have nothing to do with Denver’s ultimate goal.
After the Minnesota Duluth sweep at Magness Arena three weeks ago, head coach David Carle said, “[UMD]’s a championship-caliber team and we’re not there yet. We’ll get there but we’re not there yet.” Well, two weeks later, reeling a bit after finishing the series in Grand Forks on the wrong end of another sweep, Denver is still not there and it’s hard to tell whether they’re any closer to that level than they were a few weeks ago.
At the same time, the measure of success in this sport is not where you stand in February. It’s where you finish in the middle of April and the Pioneers still have two months to close the gap between the teams above them and themselves. There’s no question that the Pioneers have the talent to do it and contend. But they haven’t shown it yet and time is running out.
Don’t book your flights to Detroit just yet but maybe keep that mid-April weekend open. You know, just in case.
Top photo courtesy of Denver Athletics