ST. PAUL, Minn. — No matter what happens this weekend, the #3 and top-seeded Denver Pioneers’ (27-8-1) season will continue in the NCAA Tournament next weekend. In fact, in 88% of the scenarios, including some in which Denver loses to fourth-seeded Minnesota Duluth tomorrow night, simulated by College Hockey News in their Pairwise Probability Matrix, DU will be the #1 seed at the Loveland Regional in the NCAA Tournament next weekend and will be no lower than the #5 overall seed. In a lot of ways, that’s a comforting thing, knowing the season will continue next weekend. But don’t mistake it for a lack of desire to win a third trophy (Gold Pan, Penrose Cup) for these Pioneers. They’re hungry for a third Frozen Faceoff championship and to enter the NCAA Tournament on a high.
“It’s great to be back at the Xcel [Energy Center],” DU head coach David Carle said during Thursday’s Frozen Faceoff media availability. “It’s a great venue, great event with four exceptional teams that have all done a lot of work…to get here. It’s a great opportunity to see one-and-done hockey for our team and we’re excited for the stage that our group gets to play on.”
Sure, Denver Hockey is about winning national championships and David Carle’s squad’s sole focus is on hanging that ninth banner at Magness Arena and tie Michigan for the most all-time. Yes, that indeed is the goal year in and year out. But this year, the Pioneers are trying to do something this season that no NCHC team has done since 2005: Win the regular-season conference championship, postseason conference championship, and national championship in the same season.
The last program in the NCHC/WCHA to do it? That vaunted 2004-05 Denver team that went 32-9-2 and beat both Colorado College and North Dakota at the Columbus Frozen Four.
Since that team, just three programs (2009 Boston University, 2012 Boston College, and 2014 Union) have accomplished the feat. Even during the four-year stretch of NCHC dominance that saw North Dakota, Denver, and Minnesota Duluth take home the national championship, it didn’t happen. These Pioneers are on a mission to change that.
But to win all three trophies, you have to win the first two and the focus for the Pioneers this weekend is playing in its first single-elimination tournament and finding success doing so.
“We’re still playing for a trophy. That’s important,” Carle said of his team’s motivation this weekend. “It’s also a really good training ground for what the national tournament is. You couldn’t ask for four better teams to get together in one spot and play a one-and-done [tournament] to replicate what we’re going to face next weekend in Loveland. We want to learn, we want to put our best foot forward, and ultimately try to win a championship.”
After last weekend’s dominant sweep of the Miami University RedHawks, one of the four sweeps in the NCHC Quarterfinal round, DU’s attention quickly turned to their semifinal opponent in Minnesota Duluth which used an overtime goal from Noah Cates in game two against St. Cloud State to secure their own sweep and find their way back to the semifinals for the fifth-straight time.
The sentiment at Magness Arena after Denver’s sweep-clinching 5-1 victory last weekend was one of revenge. Said Cole Guttman that night of playing the only team that beat the Pioneers at Magness Arena this season, “We owe them after last game.” It feels appropriate that these two teams whose recent history has been so intertwined would match up in DU’s first massive postseason test. Not only did the Pioneers top the Bulldogs in the 2017 national title game in Chicago, but the two national powers matched up in the Frozen Faceoff semifinals in each of the last two times it was held in St. Paul. In 2018, Denver beat UMD 3-1 en route to its second NCHC Tournament Championship while the Bulldogs got their own revenge a year later with a 3-0 shutout on their way to their second-ever title.
“It’s a good rivalry. It’s a lot of fun playing those guys,” Guttman said with a smile on Thursday in St. Paul. “Games are usually tight so we’re two teams that just have to play to their systems and they’re really good at that. I think we have a really skilled group, we just have to play fast and stay out of the box but I’m really confident in this group and it should be a fun game.”
This is indeed a massive weekend in terms of NCAA Tournament seeding and the years-long rivalry between the Bulldogs and Pioneers but with the tournament returning to St. Paul for the first time since 2019, this weekend’s games give the NCAA’s points leader and Hobey Baker Top 10 finalist Bobby Brink a special homecoming that he hasn’t been able to have since joining the Pioneers for the 2019-2020 season. It’s more than a hometown homecoming, though, as it will be the first time since 2018 that Brink will have the opportunity to play at the Xcel Energy Center.
“A lot of good memories here,” Brink said with a grin when asked about his playing history at the ‘X.’ “One of my greatest achievements, winning the state title here, it was a really cool event with your best friends, just really happy to be back.”
The Pioneers’ season won’t end this weekend. Denver’s stellar Penrose Cup-winning regular-season campaign earned them that luxury. But there is so much more at stake for these Pioneers than simply entering the NCAA Tournament on a high note. Between history, revenge, and a special homecoming, DU has plenty to play for over these next hopefully couple of games.
Top photo: Dave Harwig via Denver Athletics