Pioneers Special Teams Shine as Denver Clinches Season Sweep of North Dakota

The #4 Denver Pioneers (23-7-0, 14-4-0 NCHC) swept the North Dakota Fighting Hawks (12-13-4, 6-10-2 NCHC) in a four-game regular season series for the first time since the 2009-10 season. After miserable travel delays and a long bus ride from Minneapolis to Grand Forks to kick off the series opener in November, the Pioneers managed to earn a huge early road sweep with 3-2 and 6-3 victories. Then, this weekend, working with shifting rules throughout both penalty-filled games, the Pioneers stayed on their march towards the postseason with 5-3 and 5-2 victories at Magness Arena to clinch the season series sweep and move eight points clear of second-place St. Cloud State and Western Michigan in the race for the Penrose Cup.

A night ago, referees Tom Sterns and Ryan Hersey did their best to steal the spotlight from the 43 student-athletes on the ice with inconsistent calls and a shifting rules standard that didn’t seem to stay consistent even from shift to shift. On Saturday night, in the season finale of DU-UND, Sterns and Hersey were at their worst yet again but the result was never in doubt and the Pioneers skated away with a dominant rivalry victory.

Though the scores and poor officiating in each game were similar, this weekend’s two games could not have been more different. For starters, the Pioneers’ penalty-killing unit – the subject of much consternation among DU fans – was a perfect 6-for-6, stifling the NCAA’s top power-play unit at every turn. In those six chances, the Fighting Hawks only generated five total shots on goal. Not only was goaltender Magnus Chrona at his sharpest even without seeing many shots (DU outshot UND 37-23), but the penalty killers themselves also did an excellent job getting into and staying in passing and shooting lanes.

“We work hard on our PK and we always want the other team to not score,” Shai Buium said of DU’s perfect PK effort. “We did a really good job of that tonight. Guys were willing to block shots and we did what we were supposed to so we got the job done.”

But beyond the elite penalty-killing effort, it was the power play and four-on-four units that made the difference on the scoreboard. After going 0-for-5 on the power play on Friday, DU exploded for three goals on seven tries on Saturday night, all of which came during UND’s two major penalties (Gavin Hain in the first period for kneeing/slew-footing Connor Caponi and Tyler Kleven for direct contact to Justin Lee’s head in the second). Carter King got the action started just five seconds into Hain’s major by tipping a Sean Behrens shot from the point past Drew DeRidder, who was pulled a night ago after surrendering four of DU’s five goals. Then, Aidan Thompson and Shai Buium took advantage of DeRidder’s penchant for biting on an early move and each scored into a yawning cage during Kleven’s major penalty to extend the lead to 3-0 heading into the final period.

“Yeah, I finally got another goal here so that was nice,” Buium said of his game-winning goal. “‘Behry’ and Dornbach made nice plays and Behrens had a nice shot and I was there to tap it in.”

North Dakota did their best to make it a game in the third period as Mark Senden and Jackson Blake each scored but both times, the Pioneers responded. Tristan Broz scored DU’s first of their two four-on-four goals in the third period thanks to a lucky deflection off of a Fighting Hawk’s skate that caused the puck to fall right at his feet in the slot and Massimo Rizzo scored his second of the weekend off of a bad North Dakota turnover in their own zone, something that has been a theme for the green-and-black this season.

“Those are good games, kinda like playoff games,” Rizzo said of beating an archrival in North Dakota, “It gets us ready for [the playoffs]. Definitely fun beating those guys.”

As eventful, emotional, and poorly officiated (both ways) as this weekend’s rivalry series was, the Pioneers took a big step as the stretch run of the season approaches. The Fighting Hawks, in many ways, were playing for their season. Their already slim hopes for making the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid hinged mostly on earning at least one victory at Magness Arena this weekend. Meanwhile, the Pioneers already held the inside track for winning the Penrose and are all but a shoo-in for the NCAA Tournament, faced a stiff test from a desperate team and they passed with flying colors.

“A lot of what happens is you kind of ride your ups and downs,” King said when asked to compare this season to last season in February. “[Just] make sure you are able to push through those downs and make sure you’re on the upswing going into the playoffs.”

It could have been easy for Denver to rest on their laurels this weekend knowing that the results this weekend would not affect their chances of making the NCAA Tournament and going on a run. But as David Carle and his staff know all too well, passing these kinds of tests now against desperate teams in a playoff atmosphere is only going to help them achieve their ultimate goal in Tampa in two months.

Now, with North Dakota firmly in their rearview mirror, the Pioneers’ attention turns to Minnesota Duluth who had the luxury of watching this weekend’s series from their couches during their last bye week of the season. As for how the Pioneers are going to avoid a letdown after such an emotional rivalry weekend?

Said head coach David Carle, “We know what Duluth’s done in the last few years,” referencing the Bulldogs’ innate ability to get hot at the right time and make a lot of noise in the NCHC and NCAA Tournaments. “So I’m not worried about it.”

David Carle Postgame


Top photo: Tyler Schank/Clarkson Creative via DU Athletics

4 thoughts on “Pioneers Special Teams Shine as Denver Clinches Season Sweep of North Dakota”

  1. Great weekend – a lot of good Denver teams in the last 13 years could not sweep North Dakota all four games, but this one did, And hung 10 goals on them this weekend in the process. The ability of Mazur and Rizzo to break out of slumps was crucial

    The Pios are getting contributions from up and down the lineup, and have learned how to respond when punched in the mouth.

    As for UND, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen their defense and and goaltending this down. While Berry seems to be an old school coach, they’ve got some really excellent recruits in their pipleline, and that program doesn’t stay down very long.

  2. Terrific result this weekend for DU, and a better all-around game last night for the Pios. It was great to see the special teams finally put a complete game together, and I liked DU’s ability to generate more pressure with the puck and get more pucks to the net last night. Chrona, although not overly tested last night, was good all weekend. Going 4-0 vs UND is a big accomplishment, and this weekend will certainly be important as DU continues to build momentum heading into the postseason. Only 6 games left in the regular season.

    I know I’m stating the obvious here, but this series was badly over-officiated. Not sure what Sterns and Hersey were seeing out there, but they had a poor weekend, and both teams were stuck trying to adjust to what was a frustrating quagmire of penalties. The only thing I can figure is they felt a need to assert themselves early and often, given this heated rivalry, and they wanted to make sure they kept things well under control. Regardless, it was not a good look for them.

    It felt like an eternity since UND last visited Magness. After finally seeing them again in person this weekend, it was clear this squad is not as complete a team as the one’s I’m used to seeing. And it’s certainly odd to see them towards the bottom of the NCHC standings and under .500 overall. They have some good pieces–Blake and Gaber are fun to watch and fly around, Jandric is solid (seems to be much better player than his brother, who was with DU for a short time), and I like Senden’s grit and all around game. However, they are clearly shaky in net, are vulnerable defensively, and just don’t seem to be as crisp as in year’s past.

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