Pioneers Get Outplayed by Nanooks in Return from Holiday Break

Even the best teams have a bad game or two every year. Sloppy passes, no communication, disjointed play…sometimes anything that can go wrong does. In their return from their three-week holiday break, the #1 Denver Pioneers (16-5-0, 8-2-0 NCHC) laid an egg. No part of their game worked well and their opponent, the Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks (11-8-2), skated them out of their own building. The visitors claimed a 33-20 shots on goal advantage and, if it was tracked, their offensive zone time would have dwarfed Denver’s. The Pioneers are no strangers to post-holiday break duds (remember Providence in 2016-17? Princeton? The tie vs these same Nanooks last year?) and tonight’s 3-1 loss that ended their seven-game winning streak ranks right up there among the worst of them.

Through the first period, it was clear that it was going to be a low-scoring, grind-it-out kind of game. There was no pace, no rhythm in the opening frame and the big hit that Mike Benning took right off of the opening faceoff set the tone for what was going to be a physical game, led by the Nanooks.

“Obviously, it’s disappointing,” DU captain Justin Lee said. “[Alaska] showed up to work and we have more to give in our locker room. Overall our effort tonight was disappointing.”

Quite frankly, the only word that came to mind to describe the first period was boring – and that was exactly how Alaska wanted it. Everything DU did – the missed passes, the overly unselfish play in the offensive zone – played right into the Nanooks’ hands and in the second period, during a five-minute major for boarding issued to DU captain Justin Lee, they pounced. Less than a minute into the power play, Jonny Sorenson was left all alone in the left circle and TJ Lloyd found him with a pass around what seemed like all four DU penalty killers. The Nanooks’ top line left-winger did not miss. Less than three minutes later, still on the power play, Brady Risk tipped home a Lloyd shot from the point and all of a sudden, the Pios were trailing by two.

“That’s not the penalty kill’s fault, that’s my fault for taking that penalty,” Lee said when asked about DU’s struggling penalty kill, which ranks 53rd out of 62 Division I teams at a paltry 75.7%. “I take responsibility for that. It’s unacceptable on my part I have to learn from that and be smarter.”

Massimo Rizzo got one back for the Pios on a one-timer at the end of a lengthy five-on-three stint to give the hosts some hope but looking back, the result was never really in doubt. The Nanooks wanted the win more than the Pios did and they earned it. Alaska seemed to know what DU was trying to do offensively before the Pioneers even knew and prevented them from stringing more than two or three passes together all night long. DU scoring chances were few and far between due to Alaska’s defensive skill and the Pios’ ugly, sloppy offensive effort.

In short, it was a night to forget for the soon-to-be-former #1 team in the country. Post-holiday break duds have oddly become a bit of a staple for this proud program and assuming things go according to plan for Carle’s team, this extremely poor performance will be nothing more than a blip on the radar.

“We have to learn from it and take it the right way,” Lee said of the loss. “This is some adversity that we have to face and we have to build from that and take what we can from it and then turn the page for tomorrow.

David Carle Postgame


Top photo credit: Adri Meyer/Denver Athletics

4 thoughts on “Pioneers Get Outplayed by Nanooks in Return from Holiday Break”

  1. I think someone forgot to tell DU that the holiday break is over and the season has resumed. That was piss-poor. DU had no offensive flow, no forecheck, no puck management, and lost a lot of puck battles and races to the puck. Dreadful way to start 2023. That was clunker #2, after the loss to Omaha back in November. Not much else to say–that was one to forget.

    Full credit to UAF. Those guys were the faster, crisper, hungrier, and more energetic team. They clogged the neutral zone effectively, didn’t give the Pios much time and space, had a solid forecheck of their own, were the better team in the corners and along the boards, and kept DU from having any kind of flow. They played a very effective road game and certainly deserved the W.

    Pios have to dig deep and come out with a much better effort tomorrow.

  2. Another good lesson for this team to learn about effort level. UAF played one of the best team defenses we’ve seen against DU this year, won the puck battles, and was the better team overall last night. Let’s hope this shakes DU out of the post-holiday malaise, which we’ve seen at Magness for decades now, dating back to some horrible Denver Cup performances 20-ish years ago.

    Another thing, with this talent level, there is no way that DU should be ranked #53 nationally in penalty killing at 75%. I am glad DU is trying to do something about it. Last year, they won a national title at 79% (ranked #39), but DU’s offense this year is a notch below last year, so the PK slippage becomes even more critical. As Carle said, flank blocking needs improvement (which is true) but also a thing they need to look at is spacing. Steve Miller had a great PK year after year here when he was assistant coach in the Gwozdecky era, and maybe another look at the tapes from back then might help. Or get some outside help. DU should be at least 80-85%…

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