The #5 Denver Pioneers (18-5-1, 11-3-0-1, 32 pts) were always expected to sweep the last-place Miami RedHawks (4-20-2, 1-14-1-0-1, 6 pts) this weekend. DU swept them at Magness Arena back in November by a combined score of 11-2 and MU was coming off of a dismal, embarrassing weekend sweep at the hands of #6 St. Cloud State, 11-1 & 8-0. Everything was lined up perfectly for an easy road sweep for the Pioneers before they came home to begin their toughest stretch of the season, hosting SCSU and Minnesota Duluth before traveling to Kalamazoo to take on the Western Michigan Broncos in a weekend that could determine who earns a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But the weekend in Oxford ended up far from the easy series that most had expected and though the Pios did indeed earn the sweep, though the path to get there was filled with obstacles even the most seasoned college hockey fans probably didn’t expect.
Denver senior captain Cole Guttman rescued his fellow #5th ranked Pioneers from a road disaster in the making, scoring two extra attacker goals in the final three minutes of the third period, including the tying goal with just 11 seconds left, and then set-up the Mike Benning game-winner in overtime to down last-place Miami, 5-4 in overtime in Oxford, Ohio.
The Pioneers opened the scoring with Bowling Green transfer Cameron Wright’s team-leading 15th goal but very quickly after, everything completely unraveled. Bobby Brink & Ryan Barrow each took a penalty for tripping less than a minute apart and Miami’s Hampus Rydqvist cashed in on the ensuing five-on-three and five-on-four power plays to quickly erase DU’s lead and make it a 2-1 RedHawks lead. Wright scored again, his second PPG of the period, with a minute and a half left but Red Savage, probably Miami’s best player of the weekend, answered with just 15 seconds left to end the high-scoring first period with the Pioneers still trailing.
One of the secrets to Denver’s success this season has been their second-period dominance. Like the 2017 squad, the Pioneers this year have used the middle frame in many games to effectively put games away. In fact, they have outscored opponents 47-14 in the second period this season, by far the largest goal differential in any of the three periods this season (28-18 1st, 35-23 3rd). But in this game, and really in both second periods this weekend, the RedHawks were able to keep the Pioneers at bay. As a result, on Friday night, they took that 3-2 first-period lead into the third despite the Pios dominating the shot board 13-5 in the second.
On top of it all, Savage doubled Miami’s lead just 23 seconds into the third on the first of the only two shots DU goaltender faced in the period. In the other crease, despite surrendering 19 goals to SCSU last weekend, Ludvig Persson was back to his old tricks in the third period against the Pioneers, somehow stopping even the most obvious scoring chances. But the Pioneers embraced the relentless style of play that made them a national force under Jim Montgomery and now under David Carle and with the extra attacker on the ice and Chrona on the bench, Cole Guttman scored twice in the final 3:03 including his game-tying marker with 11 seconds left to force overtime. Then, to punctuate the comeback, Guttman led a two-on-one rush with Mike Benning three minutes into overtime, made a move around the diving Miami defender and found Benning backdoor to seal the 5-4 overtime victory and earn two NCHC points.
The #5 Denver Pioneers (18-5-1, 11-3-0-1 NCHC, 32 pts) traveled to the Goggin Ice Center in Oxford, Ohio to take on the last-place Miami University RedHawks (4-19-2, 1-13-1-0-1, 6 pts) expecting two easy wins after the RedHawks were demolished 11-1 & 8-0 against St. Cloud State last weekend. Instead, the Pios got a lot more than they bargained for in the two-game series as DU had to come back from a third-period two-goal deficit on Friday night to force overtime before coming away with the 5-4 victory. On Saturday evening, the RedHawks once again gave the Pioneers all they could handle, spotting the Pioneers a 2-0 lead before tying it back up at 2 entering the third period. Ryan Barrow scored the game-winner less than six minutes into the final frame and McKade Webster sealed the 4-2 win with an empty-netter with just over a minute left.
It was a gritty series sweep where the first-place Pioneers narrowly escaped with two wins and come home with five more points to become the first team in the NCHC to reach 30 points on the season.
You could certainly make the argument that the Pioneers underperformed this weekend against a team that they should have obliterated. But that’s often not how sports work. Miami was coming off of an embarrassing series against St. Cloud State where certain RedHawk fans believed their team wasn’t trying hard enough and in a sense, the Pioneers might have been positioned for an upset loss or two with the toughest portion of their schedule looming. Were the Pioneers overlooking the RedHawks a bit? Maybe. Did DU enter the weekend thinking they’d coast to two easy victories after seeing what the Huskies did last weekend? Possibly. Either way, the RedHawks gave the Pioneers all they could handle and then some all weekend long. But Denver weathered the storm and came away with a very important five points to remain three points clear of second-place North Dakota with 10 games remaining.
Now, with this series behind them, Denver can focus on their next three series, all of which will show fans exactly who this team is. It’s one thing to beat up on weaker competition like Omaha, Colorado College, and Miami over the past three weeks, but with #5 (Pairwise) St. Cloud State next weekend, #8 Minnesota Duluth, and #4 Western Michigan coming up over the next three weeks, the level of competition is about to get a whole hell of a lot tougher and we’re about to find out just how serious an NCHC and national title contender the Pioneers are.