Loveland, CO – Oh, how sweet it is that the Denver Pioneers are back in the NCAA Tournament. Even just a one-year absence made the heart grow ever-fonder of this annual celebration of this sport we love so dearly. Last year, DU and its poor offense sputtered to a forgettable 10-13-1 record and were left on the outside looking in at the field of 16 teams. Now, with the Pairwise Rankings back to determine the NCAA Tournament at-large bids and seeding, the Pioneers are back near the top of the college hockey world and enter the NCAA Tournament as the #4 overall seed and the #1 seed at the Loveland Regional, which they are hosting. While much of the attention has been paid to a potential second-round matchup with NCHC rival Minnesota Duluth, their first-round and most important opponent is one with whom the Pioneers have little history, especially in the postseason – Hockey East’s UMass-Lowell (not Amherst).
Denver saw the likes of Hockey East just twice this season and the taste left in their mouth from those two games was absolutely awful. Those two games, a 6-5 loss to Providence in which they blew a 4-1 lead in the third period and a disappointing 5-1 blowout at the hands of Boston College, came against two teams who didn’t even sniff the NCAA Tournament this year. Providence finished at #19 in the Pairwise, five spots behind the last at-large bid claimed by Northeastern, and BC ended the year at an uncharacteristically low #28 and were effectively eliminated from contention for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid by the end of January.
Those two games were the first half of the Pios’ only rough patch of the season. Two weeks after the east coast disaster, they traveled to Grand Forks and were swept by the Fighting Hawks by a combined score of 7-2.
“We’re definitely a better team [now]. We’ve grown throughout the year,” DU’s points leader Bobby Brink said Wednesday during post-practice media availability. “I think we had a good team coming in and there’s obviously going to be some growing pains with a young group but I think we had this type of team there the whole time.”
Since that four-game losing streak, the Pioneers are 23-5-1 and only once lost multiple games in a row when they lost at Western Michigan in the second game of the series before falling in the series opener in Omaha the following weekend. Denver has played so well that at times, they’ve elicited memories of the dominant 2017 squad that won the program’s 8th national title in Chicago.
But this team is different. David Carle has built this team to be a skilled, offensive juggernaut and, aside from the team’s lone shutout last weekend in the Frozen Faceoff – becoming the first of UMD goaltender Ryan Fanti’s two shutout victims – it has worked to perfection. The Pioneers boast the country’s highest-scoring offense (4.38 g/gm) and have the NCAA’s points leader, Bobby Brink (14g-41a-55p) on its roster. Brink is also the NCHC’s lone Hobey Baker Top 10 Finalist.
“You don’t get this opportunity every year,” Brink said of the tournament and being named a Hobey Baker Top 10 finalist. “It’s not something to waste. I wouldn’t be in the national spotlight without my teammates, especially my linemates. They should probably be in the national spotlight just as much as me. [I just want] to win instead of being in the spotlight. [Winning] is more important to me.”
But now, on the eve of the NCAA Tournament, with Denver playing a national tournament game in Colorado for the first time since 2004 when they beat Miami and North Dakota at the World Arena en route to their sixth national title (which they won in Boston, the site of the 2022 Frozen Four), none of the last six months of hockey matters. They have but one important game in front of them. If they want to keep playing hockey, they need to beat a Hockey East team for the first time this season and UMass-Lowell (21-10-3), the #13 overall seed, won’t go down easily.
“You just have to execute. You can’t make dumb mistakes. You can’t hurt yourself because they’re not going to playing that type of hockey” Brink said of playing against a tough, physical, defensive team like UMass-Lowell. “You have to outwork them, penetrate the middle, and eventually get a puck to the net and outwork them in front.”
The River Hawks, coached by Norm Bazin, boast the country’s fifth-best scoring defense, allowing just 2.09 goals per game which is led by goaltender and pun-magnet Owen Savory. In 28 games this season, the River Hawks’ goaltender has a sterling 20-6-2 record with a 1.89 GAA and .927 SV%. He gave up more than three goals just twice all season, both times giving up four to arch rival UMass-Amherst. Savory’s sweet stats don’t tell the whole story, though. In those 28 games, the River Hawks surrendered an average of just 25.9 shots on goal. Contrast that with DU’s offense which averages 37.8 per game, good for 2nd nationally, behind only Penn State which missed the tournament.
In other words, tomorrow night’s game is going to be one of severe contrasts. While the Pioneers will try to dazzle with their offensive prowess and blistering speed and channel the NHL club whose AHL affiliate calls Budweiser Events Center home, UML is going to do their best to replicate Minnesota Duluth’s stifling defensive performance at the Frozen Faceoff at the Xcel Energy Center last weekend to prevent the Pios’ offense from scoring first and taking over the game. UMass-Lowell is just 6-6-3 this season when their opponent scores first while Denver is 20-1-1 when they score first themselves.
“When we’re playing fast and we’re supporting one another all over the ice is when we’re playing our best,” DU captain Cole Guttman said when asked how fans will know when the Pioneers are clicking. “We have a lot of skilled guys so when we’re making plays all over the ice and sound in the d-zone is when we’re at our best. I think we can add a physical element too, especially when playoffs come around.”
The Pioneers are favored to win tomorrow with -340 odds (according to DraftKings) for a reason. They are effectively playing a home game against a lesser team that is only scoring 2.94 goals per game from a conference that just finished a down year by their standards. But the great equalizer this time of year, when the lights shine their brightest is pressure. This is men’s college hockey’s biggest stage and decade in, decade out, the University of Denver hockey program has proven that it can handle that pressure and the monstrous expectations from its illustrious alumni and fans alike.
“We prepare the whole year for this moment and to be in these situations,” DU head coach David Carle said. “We try and draw experiences throughout the year that can relate to what’s going to be important when we get to this stage. It’s not like it’s the first time we’ve talked about the national tournament or the level of execution or the level of intensity or preparation that is needed to have success. Pressure is a good thing. We’ve earned the opportunity to have this pressure.”
Carle and his team have said from the get-go that winning this time of the year is the singular goal every season. Everything else, the 27-9-1 record, the Penrose Cup, the Gold Pan, doesn’t matter if the Pioneers aren’t the last ones standing, hoisting that last trophy at center ice of TD Garden in three weeks. That four-game journey starts Thursday, in the nightcap of the NCAA Tournament’s opening day, when they must start by shutting down an upset-hungry River Hawks team eager to shock the college hockey world.
Top photo courtesy of Denver Athletics via Denver Hockey Twitter