St. Paul, MN – The #3 Denver Pioneers’ (27-9-1) season wasn’t going to end in St. Paul but it certainly would have been nice to come back to Denver with another trophy to add to the Magness Arena trophy case. Unfortunately for the Pios, the #8 Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs (20-15-4) were standing in their way in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff Semifinals, both literally and figuratively, and the Pioneers couldn’t find their way around them or their goaltender Ryan Fanti as they were shutout 2-0 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN.
It was an all-around disappointing and uncharacteristic performance for the Pioneers who had not been shutout all season until this game. From the very start of the game, Denver was a step slower than the Bulldogs and were chasing the play for most of the 60 minutes, though UMD was the better team for the entirety of the game.
“It was a tight-checking game like we expected,” DU head coach David Carle said. “I think for us to come here and play a one-and-done situation, it was a good learning experience. Give [UMD] credit, they did a great job, but I didn’t think we played our best game.”
And yet, they were in the game all the way until the Bulldogs scored their empty-net goal with 20 seconds left and that was thanks to the stellar play from goaltender Magnus Chrona who stopped all but one of the 30 shots he faced. The one, of course, was the game-winning goal which came late in the first period on a perfectly-executed two-on-one play by the Bulldogs. The play itself was the product of shoddy defense by the Pioneers and Chrona had no chance to stop Biondi’s tap-in.
As well as Chrona played, he was the lone bright spot for the Pios and they couldn’t find a way to build on the momentum provided by their netminder. And on the few great scoring chances that the staunch Bulldogs defense allowed to the Pioneers, either Fanti made relatively easy saves or shots went high and wide. Of the Pioneers’ 52 shot attempts, just 30 were on target while two hit the post and four missed the net entirely. The other 16 were blocked by UMD’s strong defense which effectively prevented the Pioneers from getting into high-danger areas in front of Fanti.
“This time of the year, you have to play hard hockey, get pucks in,” Ryan Barrow said. “They were just clogging up the neutral zone and you have to give them credit. They stuck to their gameplan better than we stuck to ours.”
Entering the second period, there was a sense that the Pios would lean on their strong middle-frame play that they’ve shown all season, outscoring opponents 68-21 in the period, but it was not to be. If anything, it was the Bulldogs who had the better play in the second as they out-attempted DU 18-15 and held the Pios to just nine shots on goal. It wasn’t that the formula the Pioneers had used all season wasn’t working, it was that they failed to stick to that formula consistently and the results spoke for themselves. Even a controversial disallowed UMD goal near the end of the second period couldn’t spur the Pioneers on to solving Fanti or UMD’s defense.
“He moves well, he’s definitely a really good goalie,” Guttman said of NCHC Goaltender of the Year Ryan Fanti. “Against him, you have to get traffic in front and we didn’t do a good enough job of that and I think we missed nets on good opportunities. Credit to him, he had a great game, but there’s things on our end that we can do to put pucks in the net on goalies like that.”
The result of the loss is that the Pioneers won’t be able to finish off the “treble,” winning the Penrose Cup, NCHC Tournament, and National Championship. But, of course, the crown jewel of the Pioneers’ history is winning that final trophy and every single one of the players in DU’s locker room would be more than happy to trade an NCHC Tournament championship for a ninth national title, which is still very much in play.
“It’s lessons learned,” Carle said of what his team can learn from this game and take into next weekend’s NCAA Tournament Regional. “Two penalties that take us off of power plays, an average start, an inconsistency in executing our gameplan throughout our lineup, and the lesson is that you need everybody…We came here to try and win a championship but we really came here to try and learn something about ourselves and take some lessons back to Colorado and that was going to happen whether we won or we lost.”
Now, with their Frozen Faceoff trip now cut short, the Pioneers turn their attention to the other games around the country this weekend which will determine their seeding when the NCAA Tournament starts in Loveland next Thursday. While they are a near-lock to be the #1 seed at the Budweiser Events Center, if North Dakota or Western Michigan win the NCHC Tournament and Minnesota beats Michigan in the Big 10 Championship tomorrow night, the Pioneers would drop to #5 in the Pairwise, Loveland’s #2 seed.
It was a disappointing trip to St. Paul for the Pioneers, no doubt and to lose to the Bulldogs in a game where they played altogether fairly poorly, it only amplifies the discontent. But if there is any glimmer of hope entering next weekend’s NCAA Tournament Regionals, in 2017, after playing a poor game and getting shutout by North Dakota, 1-0, in the Frozen Faceoff Semifinals, they turned the page and went on to win the national championship over UMD.
The season isn’t over and the main season goal is still within reach. But they can’t replicate this afternoon’s performance if they’re going to earn a ninth banner in Boston in three weeks.
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) March 18, 2022
Top photo courtesy of Denver Athletics