Before the #11 Denver Pioneers (4-4-0, 0-2-0) left Denver for Boston on their first road trip of the season a few weeks ago, they were flying high at 4-0 and averaging 6 goals per game, good enough for the best mark in the country. But with their next four games coming against Providence, Boston College, and North Dakota, all on the road, their first test was still ahead of them. Now, with the benefit of hindsight and watching four straight losses including the last three where the Pios scored just one goal in each game, it’s clear that DU has a long way to go to get to where they want to be in March and April. The latest disappointment, though, two losses by a combined score of 7-2 at the hands of the #8 North Dakota Fighting Hawks (6-3-0, 2-0-0), stings more than a bit more than the losses to Providence and Boston College did.
Game One: Pioneers Drop Defensive Contest as North Dakota Goaltender Stymies Denver
Between the two games this weekend, game one was likely the most winnable for the Pios. Despite stingy defense on the part of the Fighting Hawks, the Pioneers were able to generate plenty of legitimate scoring chances and plenty of them didn’t find the back of the net only because of goaltender Zach Driscoll’s heroics.
After a scoreless first period, North Dakota opened the scoring seven minutes into the second on a goal that probably shouldn’t have happened. After Denver defenseman Kyle Mayhew went down with an apparent injury behind Denver’s net, the Pios exited the zone but without a fifth skater’s support in the neutral zone, they turned it over which turned into a 2-on-0 chance for the Fighting Hawks. Despite Mayhew’s valiant effort to get back on his skates and stop the goal, North Dakota found the back of the net. It was a play that should have been whistled dead after the Pios exited the zone but the rules have always been different in Grand Forks for some reason. Then, just 50 seconds later, Louis Jamernik doubled UND’s lead.
Denver got one back with just 34 seconds left in the second period on an odd-man rush of their own and it gave the Pios a spark heading into the third period. In the final frame, Denver outshot North Dakota 11-6 and dominated possession. It was a great display of what made Denver so good through four games but Driscoll was up to the task to stymie even the most promising of backdoor looks for the Pioneers. In the end, North Dakota added an empty-net goal on the power play with 28 seconds left to seal the 3-1 final score. If only Denver could have built on that strong third period…
Game Two: Pioneers Drop 4th-Straight as Officials Lose Control of Rivalry Game
Any momentum that the Pioneers had built in the third period on Friday night did not carry over into Game Two. North Dakota dominated play from the jump as Matteo Costantini and Tyler Kleven both tallied for the Fighting Hawks in the first 11 minutes. Denver looked a step slow and North Dakota took full advantage. UND outshot DU 12-8 in the opening period and the Pios never really recovered. Ryan Barrow did pull the Pioneers back to within one in the second period but Riese Gaber essentially put the game out of reach with a four-on-four goal barely three minutes into the third period.
Scoring became secondary to the rest of the game from there, though:
After a Tyler Kleven high hit on Cole Guttman went uncalled and then DU head coach David Carle’s challenge for contact to the head was somehow unsuccessful (Kleven’s elbow appeared to make contact with Guttman’s facemask), it was clear that referees Nick Krebsbach and Nathan Weiler had no intention of calling a good, clean game. As a result, the game got out of hand in the third period with two game misconducts for contact to the head were handed out, one to each team. The first went to Denver’s scoring leader Carter Savoie and the second, of course, still ended up getting issued to Kleven himself, though it came just a couple of periods too late. Once again, though, North Dakota was able to add an empty-net goal to ice the 4-1 game with more than two minutes left to complete the sweep.
Now, to clarify, Denver did not lose these two games because of the officiating. Denver lost these two games because they scored just two goals in two games. The only time the officiating ended up playing into the result was in game one on North Dakota’s first goal when play should have been halted for Mayhew’s injury. Otherwise, Denver lost two more games because they failed to score enough goals. The officiating issues, while important in a conference that prides itself on being the best in the country, are secondary. And in the end, Denver went winless this year against its biggest out-of-state rival this year.
The Pioneers, to this point remain somewhat a conundrum. They have dominated two bad teams (sorry, ASU but it’s true) but are now 0-4 against ranked teams and have been outscored 12-3 in their last three. Coming home next weekend to play Western Michigan and then Miami could be just the antidote that the Pioneers need (though Western Michigan has had a number of impressive victories and the Redhawks did split with Omaha in Nebraska). But even if they end up sweeping both in dominating fashion as fans might expect, it may not answer some lingering questions about who these Pioneers really are. Are they the team that went 4-0 to open the season and just a young team that couldn’t deliver in its first two road trips of the season? Or are the problems deeper and easier to mask against bad teams?
The good news, though, is the season is just eight games old and when they’re at their best, the Pioneers have always have been second-half teams. So no, it’s not time to hit the panic button, but this stretch of four games is, at the very least, somewhat alarming.
Top photo: The Grand Forks Herald