When you’re out of the race for the Penrose Cup with three weeks left in the regular season, the focus shifts to securing home-ice advantage for the best-of-three first-round matchup in the NCHC Tournament. With the exception of the first year of the NCHC – Jim Montgomery’s first year behind Denver’s bench – the Pioneers have never opened the postseason on the road. That, as much as anything, has been a big reason why the Pioneers are the only program that has attended all six NCHC Frozen Faceoffs. And with just two games remaining on the schedule for the #6 Pioneers, the jockeying for home ice is in full swing.
Coming into the weekend, with the Pioneers sitting in 4th place in the NCHC, just four points ahead of St. Cloud State and one behind Western Michigan, home ice in the first round was the hot topic. If Denver was able to grab four points in St. Cloud, they’d lock up home ice. And with Western Michigan playing North Dakota, third place was well within reach.
Friday: St. Cloud State 5, Denver 1
St. Cloud State had been on quite an impressive unbeaten streak coming into the weekend. The streak included a tie and a win while claiming five of six possible NCHC points against #1 North Dakota a week ago. Denver swept SCSU at Magness Arena earlier in the year but on Friday night, it was the Huskies that upset North Dakota that showed up. SCSU would score the game’s first goal in the first period and while Emilio Pettersen answered for the Pioneers with a power-play goal just 50 seconds into the second period, SCSU played dominant hockey to pull away from DU in the period and went on to win 5-1.
Denver was in the game early and had chances to keep it close and even take the lead but after Kevin Fitzgerald’s goal less than two minutes after Pettersen’s, the Pioneers ran into penalty trouble and the penalty kill could not get the job done. DU surrendered two power-play goals in the second period and it was more than enough to sink the Pios’ hopes of coming out of the weekend with home ice clinched.
“I liked our start,” DU head coach David Carle said. “Our first period we generated (scoring chances), then they pushed in the second period and they scored goals. The puck went in for them and, unfortunately for us, it didn’t (for us) in the first period. I felt like the story of the game as the game went on was our penalties…at this time of year, it’s disappointing that we’re still talking about that.”
A loss in game one wasn’t enough to cause DU fans any panic when it came to the home ice competition and discussion, but it certainly was enough to give them pause. And it made Saturday night’s game as much of a must-win game as a not actually must-win game can be.
Saturday: Denver 5, St. Cloud State 2
On Saturday, Denver completely flipped the script from Friday. The Huskies opened the scoring with another power-play goal in the first period but Denver responded with two in a very sloppy though closely contested first period. Liam Finlay took advantage of a bad Husky turnover above the left circle and beat SCSU goaltender David Hrenak through the five-hole before Jake Durflinger used a perfect screen by Jaakko Heikkinen to give DU their first lead of the weekend in the closing minutes of the period. It was exactly how Denver wanted to respond to a poor start to the series and a start to the game that wasn’t exactly ideal.
Denver picked up right where they left off in the first period and stepped on the Huskies’ throats. The Pioneers outskated the home team and dominated the rest of the game. Ian Mitchell scored early in the second period while Pettersen grabbed his second of the weekend midway through the third to give the Pioneers an insurmountable lead. SCSU pulled Hrenak with more than six minutes left, knowing that with a loss, earning home ice would be a long shot but they could only muster one goal with the extra skater. Kohen Olischefski responded quickly, though, with an empty-net goal with just under two minutes to go to seal the victory and put the Pioneers back into the driver’s seat for home ice.
“All night long, that might be one of our most committed efforts of the year,” Carle said. “I thought our puck management was great. We stayed committed to what we were doing. We forced them to break a lot of pucks out and created a lot of turnovers. The story of the game was special teams again, but this time in our favor.
“The guys beared down. The battle level was much higher, the commitment to each other and our team game was much higher and that’s the standard these guys are learning. As we said to them after the game, that was Denver Hockey. We have to play to that level every night if we want to do what we want to do. We certainly have the talent and the capability, it’s the commitment and the will to win that we saw tonight that was really exciting.”
Everything the Pioneers touched on Saturday night turned to gold. It was reminiscent of both performances against Miami just a week ago. And while the wins against Miami carried with them an asterisk that they were, after all, against a bad hockey team, Saturday night’s road win against SCSU carried no such similarity. The Huskies have come on strong down the stretch and pulled themselves from irrelevance into a position of challenging for home ice. That’s no small feat in the NCHC meat grinder of a schedule. So to see Denver turn the tables and dominate the upstart Huskies is a good sign and hopefully, a sign of things to come with just two games left and the postseason looming.
The bottom line, though, is this. With two regular-season games left – both against last-place Colorado College – Denver sits in third place thanks to Saturday’s win and North Dakota’s controversial sweep of Western Michigan. They are now two points ahead of the 4th-place Broncos and four points ahead of the 5th place Huskies. WMU hosts Miami while St. Cloud State travels to Duluth to take on the UMD Bulldogs. By winning on Saturday, Denver controls their own destiny. A pair of wins against CC and they host Omaha or Miami, teams that Denver has not lost to this year. If they get swept by CC, they put their destiny in the hands of the rest of the conference. Denver has not yet clinched home ice and cannot afford a letdown against the Tigers.
This week, the Pioneers should embrace the immortal words of the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis: Just win, baby.
Top photo courtesy of St. Cloud State Athletics