In what is either a bad omen for the rest of the season or a sign of another national championship season, depending on your perspective, the #1 Denver Pioneers (2-2-0, 0-0-0 NCHC) were swept at the hands of the #13 UMass-Amherst Minutemen (2-0-1, 0-0-0 Hockey East) by scores of 4-2 and 3-0 at Mullins Center in Amherst, MA. The sweep marks the second consecutive season that the Pios traveled to the northeast and returned to the Mile High City without a win. Last year, during the third weekend of the season, the 4-0-0 Pios played Providence and Boston College and lost 6-5 and 5-1, respectively, en route to the program’s ninth national championship.
Normally, when you outshoot the opposition 47-15, you’re going to win in blowout fashion. Normally. But when that opposition scores on three of their first six shots – the total number of shots they recorded in the first period – including two shorthanded markers, ‘normal’ gets thrown out the window. And that’s exactly what happened in the series opener. During a five-minute major power play for the Pios due to Minutemen captain Cal Kiefiuk’s hitting from behind game misconduct, Kenny Connors and Scott Morrow scored shorthanded goals just 1:18 apart while the Pioneers couldn’t find a way to solve goaltender Luke Pavicich, which was a key theme for the weekend. Tyson Dyck finished the Minutemen’s 50% first-period shooting clinic at the 12:33 mark of the opening period and the Pios had quite the hole to dig out of.
Unfortunately for DU, they didn’t have a big enough shovel or enough time to make it happen. Special teams continued to struggle as Reed Lebster scored a PPG less than three minutes into the second period to extend the UMass-Amherst lead to 4-0. DU outshot UMA 12-8 in the middle frame but again could not find the back of the net.
The Pioneers finally broke through in the third period but trailing 4-0, it was unfortunately too little, too late. Carter Mazur (PPG) and Shai Buium each scored an extra attacker goal in the final seven minutes while the Pioneers outshot the Minutemen 22-1 in the final 20. That third period should have been a positive sign for a team looking to right the ship in game two, but alas, the Pios haven’t found a way to exorcise their October road trip demons.
Game Two: Luke Pavicich Shines Again for UMass-Amherst, Blanking the Pioneers to Secure Sweep
The Pavicich theme from Game One reached new heights in Game Two. The Pioneers didn’t outshoot the Minutemen 47-15 this time around but they still generated enough looks and offense that you’d expect a team like the Pios to scratch and claw to a hard-fought, close victory. Instead, Pavicich stopped all 30 shots sent his way and prevented the normally opportunistic Pioneers from capitalizing on any mistake with elite rebound control. The players that DU needs to produce the offense gave themselves plenty of chances as Carter Mazur (3), Massimo Rizzo (5), and Jack Devine (4) combined for 12 of the Pios’ shots on goal. The reality of this sport is sometimes, you just run into a hot goaltender.
Instead of the Pioneers being the opportunistic ones, it was the Minutemen who capitalized on their chances. Just 37 seconds into the game, Scott Morrow sent a puck from the half-wall toward the net and missed wide. It was a shot that otherwise wouldn’t have been a big deal except on the rebound off of the side of the net, as DU goaltender Magnus Chrona was getting back into position and trying to find the puck, he made contact with it with his skate and deflected it into his own net. It was a terrible bounce full of unfortunate luck and allowed the Minutemen to score on their first shot for the second straight game. Once again, a tough sequence in the first period set the tone for the rest of the game and it followed suit.
Over the course of the rest of the game, the Pios went 0-2 on their two power plays while Pavicich again kept the crimson & gold at bay. Cal Kiefiuk, UMass-Amherst’s captain whose game ended less than 40 seconds into game one due to his hitting from behind game misconduct, sealed the 3-0 shutout with a 185-foot empty-net goal with under two minutes left.
What’s your favorite rivalry in sports? Mine’s Denver hockey vs the month of October.
— LetsGoDU (@LetsGoDU) October 16, 2022
It was a tough weekend for a young team with a number of newcomers on the roster. For all the razzing we do of the UMass-Amherst fanbase, there’s no questioning their passion and love for their program and it came through both nights. They made Mullins Center an extremely hostile place for the Pioneers to play over the weekend and the Minutemen themselves gave Denver their first real taste of what it’s like to have the defending-champions target on their backs with two excellent defensive performances.
The path doesn’t get any easier for DU now, though, as a veteran Hockey East contender comes to Denver in Providence for the Pios’ Homecoming Weekend. But, at the very least, it will be a full house both nights and the Pios will be celebrating their 9th championship on Saturday with the banner-raising ceremony before the game (get there early!) so the emotion and crowd will be buzzing in Denver’s favor.
This was a weekend, though, that could very well pay dividends down the line for a young Pioneers team full of newcomers but in this moment, now, on October 16th, just four games into a 36-game regular season, looking at the 2-2 defending champions doesn’t feel great. But just like last year’s team that lost all of its first four road games, these are important lessons and experiences that will help force the Pioneers to show the college hockey world what they’re made of.
But hey, if losing a couple of mostly meaningless October road games is becoming part of the national championship Proscess, well, that’s just fine and it’s worth trusting.
What were your thoughts on the weekend? What did you see from the Pios this weekend that either worries you or gives you hope for the season? Before you comment, though, remember that it’s October 16th and the Pios have played four (4) games. Also, as always, please keep it respectful.
Top photo courtesy Thom Kendall for UMass Athletics