There’s no getting around it. This weekend was a step backward for the #3 Denver Pioneers (19-7-0, 10-4-0 NCHC). After ripping off three straight victories, scoring seven goals in each game, the Pios traveled to central Minnesota and laid two huge eggs against the #4 St. Cloud State Huskies (18-6-0, 10-4-0 NCHC). In game one, they surrendered three power-play goals in five chances and Magnus Chrona was pulled from between the pipes early in the third period en route to a 7-3 thrashing while in game two last night, the Pioneers could only muster 19 shots on goal while getting shut out 2-0. It was a weekend to forget from start to finish and now, with just 10 games left in the season, the Pioneers appear to have reached the turning point of their season.
Calling tonight’s road series opener against #4 St. Cloud State (17-6-0, 9-4-0 NCHC) a night to forget would be an understatement for the #3 Denver Pioneers (16-6-0, 10-3-0 NCHC). Everything that could go wrong, especially late in the second and into the third period, did, Magnus Chrona was pulled after six goals in the third period, and DU’s confounding, bad penalty kill gave up three power-play goals in five chances.
The Pios kept it close through the first half of the game and led 2-1 early in the second period, but after Brett Edwards pulled the Pioneers back to within one at 4-3 in the second, Veeti Meittinen and Grant Cruikshank each scored a power-play goal in the second and third period, respectively, and put the game out of reach. Mason Salquist scored the empty netter in the final minute to put the extra point on the scoreboard and put the finishing touches on DU’s worst defensive game of the season in terms of goals allowed.
The unacceptably bad penalty kill continues to be a big problem for an otherwise elite team and they are going to have to solve quickly if the Pios are going to earn a road split and remain alone atop the NCHC standings tomorrow night.
Denver lost their two-game NCHC Regular Season lead in the standing after a weekend sweep by St. Cloud State. Following a Friday 7-3 defeat, the Pioneers were shutout 2-0 Saturday night. The teams are now tied atop the NCHC standings. It was a battle, according to head coach David Carle, “This was tightly contested. Not much open ice. It was a challenge all weekend long. We got better this weekend. We’ll be better for it.”
The first period was tight, ending 0-0. Denver (19-7-0, 10-4-0) could only muster three shots on goal to St. Cloud State’s five. The Huskies (18-6-0, 10-4-0) dominated at the dot, winning 10 of 14 faceoffs in the first period.
The second period tilted in the Huskies’ favor with two goals. Jack Rogers broke the ice with the game-winner at 7:32 for St. Cloud on an even-up goal. Three minutes later, Zach Okabe got a powerplay tally for the Huskies at 10:26 with assists by Jami Krannila and Jack Pearl. The period ended with 11 shots-on-goal by St. Cloud to 7 SOG for Denver. Denver’s best chance to score came on an early whistle goal which was disallowed.
Pioneers score but the officials blew the whistle a bit early… if you ask us.
The play was reviewed and upheld. No goal. Still 2-0 SCSU. pic.twitter.com/KE1JtDXLcQ
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) January 22, 2023
Denver came out much more aggressively in the first ten minutes of the third period but could not solve Jaxon Castor. Denver tried a number of line combinations but to no avail. The St. Cloud defense was stout in the final ten minutes and the game ended, 2-0, St. Cloud State. The Huskies won six more faceoffs than DU and went 1-for-2 on the powerplay. Denver went 0-for-1 with the man advantage.
Despite the sweep, head coach David Carle saw the bright side in the weekend sweep on the road, “We got pushed. Our team needed to be in this type of dogfight. We need to be reminded. On to Ball Arena (against Colorado College next Friday) and a good week of practice. We will have a good week of practice.”
No team in any sport has ever won a championship without facing and learning from adversity. While this weekend was a stark reminder that the Pioneers are not, in fact, invincible (though the Alaska series alone would have sufficed), there is lots of regular-season hockey left and we are going to find out really quickly what kind of team these Pioneers are. Last year, it was the two losses in a row to Omaha and Western Michigan on the road in late February that spurred the Pioneers on to their postseason success. Only time will tell whether this weekend gives these Pios the shot in the arm they needed as the stretch run gets closer.
One interesting thing came out of this weekend’s series, though. While it certainly will not explain away two unacceptable, poor performances from the Pioneers, it may help offer context into this weekend’s struggles. Denver is now 6-4-0 on the road this year – 6-0 on NHL ice and 0-4 on non-NHL sheets. St. Cloud State is one of the last Division I programs that still play their games on Olympic-sized ice (CC finally saw the light when they built Robson Arena) while UMass-Amherst’s Mullins Center has a hybrid type of sheet whose width is just five feet less than an Olympic-sized sheet (95′ vs 100′). Denver was swept in both buildings this season. The number one thing you learn in any statistics class is that correlation is not the same thing as causation and DU’s 0-4 record in these two barns certainly should not be construed as anything more than a coincidence, but the correlation is intriguing nonetheless.
Regardless of the size of the ice they’re playing on, the Pioneers have undoubtedly reached the turning point in their season. With 10 games left, eight of which are against the old WCHA gauntlet of Colorado College, Minnesota Duluth, and North Dakota, the Pioneers are quickly going to show us what kind of team they really are. Sure, it’s been a down year for the 6th-place Bulldogs and 7th-place Fighting Hawks, but they’re still formidable opponents every time they step on the ice with the Pioneers.
Will this weekend’s sweep be what galvanizes the Pioneers on their way to repeating as national champions or is this merely the beginning of the end for a team in over its head? Stay tuned!!
Top photo: NCAA.com