Depth, Special Teams Shine as Pioneers Top RedHawks to Grab 1-0 Series Lead

Playoff hockey is a completely different beast. Regular season hockey? It has its challenges, sure. But playoff hockey is where the proverbial men are separated from the boys. Playoff hockey is where legends are made. For the #3 and top-seeded Denver Pioneers (26-8-1) who hadn’t played a postseason game at Magness Arena since 2019 due to the Covid-19 pandemic (2020 postseason was canceled and the entire 2021 NCHC Tournament was played in Grand Forks, North Dakota), their first postseason game of 2022, against the eighth-seeded Miami University RedHawks (7-26-2), was a test and despite an early penalty-killing hiccup, they passed with flying colors. The Pioneers used a strong start to the second period to pull away from the RedHawks and cruise to a 5-2 victory in Game One of the best-of-three NCHC Quarterfinal round.

Normally, playoff hockey features physical play and few whistles. Tonight’s game, though it featured plenty of physicality, broke from the norm with seven penalties called in the first period and 19 called throughout the evening. There was a total of six even-strength minutes played in the first period and it led to a lot of disjointed hockey for both teams. But many penalties gave special teams a chance to shine. Despite giving up the early marker to the RedHawks on a deflected goal by Chase Pletzke during the first power play of the game, the Pioneers’ special teams found a way to make a difference for the rest of the game. The PK unit killed off the next five Miami power plays, mostly in dominant fashion, while DU’s own power-play unit contributed a couple of tallies themselves.

“Special teams is huge, especially when you take a bunch of penalties like that, it’s nice to only let in one [power play] goal,” DU captain Cole Guttman said. “Special teams wins games when it comes down to it so we just have to keep dialing it in there.”

Denver controlled the scoreboard, if not the game all night long.  That was especially evident early in the second period when Jack Devine and McKade Webster scored just 31 seconds apart to give the Pioneers a two-goal cushion and start to pull away from the RedHawks during one of the rare stretches of five-on-five hockey.

“All four lines and seven D, anyone can play in any spot,” Webster said. “It’s been one of the key things on our team, having depth and having every line roll, and that builds on other lines when you’re wearing [the opposition] down…This year, the second period has kind of been our period where we start to roll, it’s a long change for them, especially at altitude here, and it’s easier for us to keep rolling.”

The disjointed play which lacked sustained stretches of five-on-five hockey allowed Miami to keep within striking distance of DU. But while the Pioneers were generating scoring opportunities and trying to pour in more goals, the rash of penalties led to tempers flaring for both teams with about five minutes left. As a Miami penalty ended with Denver leading 4-2, a typical post-whistle scrum escalated into a full-blown line brawl between the Pios and RedHawks. Punches were thrown, elbows were used, and mutual anger had boiled over. After a lengthy review and conversations between the coaches and officials had concluded, there were seven players in the penalty box, three for Miami and four for Denver.

“I had nowhere to sit,” said a laughing Guttman, who took a boarding minor on the play. “I was sitting on like a cooler or something for a bit.”

The result of this chaos, however, was nothing. Denver killed off the Miami power play and killed off the rest of the game. Shai Buium got in on the action, too, with a geometrically beautiful shot into Miami’s empty net to seal the game and clinch the 1-0 series lead.

“We want to sweep this team,” Webster said. “We want to send this team home tomorrow. We don’t really like these guys, like in the third period when we got in the tussles there. We want to win tomorrow.”

In the end, it was another game in which Denver scored five goals on their opponent and yet another where five different Pioneers scored and 11 recorded at least a point. The Pioneers’ depth has been a source of pride and strength all season long and it was no different tonight, in the first of hopefully many playoff games.

“Playoff hockey is the best time of the year,” Guttman said. “I really liked our game. I think there’s places we can clean up for tomorrow, especially staying out of the box, but it was fun to get the first playoff game out of the way.”

Now, the challenge turns to tomorrow night, in Game Two, as the Pioneers attempt to end Miami’s season. With the physicality in the third period and tempers flaring, tomorrow night’s game will almost certainly feature plenty of fireworks, both on the scoreboard and on the ice, in the form of physical play. Taking nine penalties in a game is generally not a winning strategy and, while it worked tonight, it may not lead to the same success in game two so if the Pioneers can match the inevitable angry physicality from the RedHawks but do it in a disciplined way, without taking unnecessary penalties, they should cruise to a series sweep and earn their ninth consecutive berth in the Frozen Faceoff semifinals.

David Carle Postgame


Top photo credit: Jamie Schwaberow/Clarkson Creative Photography via Denver Athletics

4 thoughts on “Depth, Special Teams Shine as Pioneers Top RedHawks to Grab 1-0 Series Lead”

  1. The ending scoreline may have flattered DU, but the game was closer than it needed to be. And Carle and company know it.

    Miami knows it does not have the four-line/mobile d-corps depth to skate up and down the ice with DU for three periods. So, the Redhawks did what a lot of less-skilled teams do to try to stop the Pioneers – they played a super physical game with aggressive forechecking. With the refs sending an early message that the game would be called tightly, DU got sucked-in to the trap by taking some dumb penalties and that hurt the flow of the game. While Miami was often effective, in the end, DU won the special teams battle last night, and with it, the game.

    However, with DU’s below-average PK being what it is, getting sucked into a special teams game each night is not recipe for success in playoff knockout hockey. Teams with better power plays, and better goaltenders, will burn the Pios and DU’s season will end.

    I’d like to see DU play with more discipline and stay out of the box.

  2. It wasn’t a thing of beauty by any means, and I don’t think the Pios had their best skating legs last night, but DU got the job done against a feisty but overmatched Miami team. Thankfully the special teams came through.

    I didn’t recognize those refs, but right off the bat I had a feeling it was going to be a long night and a choppy, disjointed game. I thought those guys made some very ticky-tack calls in the first period. Not sure if they were simply trying to set a tone, but it was frustrating. The game had very little flow, and it reminded me a bit of the Friday game against Omaha a few weeks ago.

    Prior to the big scrum in the 3rd, I saw Guttman take a healthy slash/cross check from a Miami player in front of the goal. He turned around and made a beeline for that kid and drilled him. Took a penalty, which isn’t ideal, but in the grand scheme of things, I loved it. I liked seeing this DU team stand up for themselves. Carle mentioned that in his postgame comments.

    Agree with Swami, though. Would like to see DU spend less time in the box tonight. And I’d like to see a harder, more sustained forecheck. As I said, I don’t think the Pios quite had their skating legs last night. Miami clearly needs and wants to muck things up, try to affect DU’s speed, and slow everything down. I think DU will try to do a better job of sustaining pressure in their zone and forcing Miami to defend more and make things harder for them in transition. I’d also like to see more pucks thrown at the net. Pios skated around a bit with the puck without doing anything last night, and that led to some turnovers. When in doubt, get the puck to the net.

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