Winning isn’t always pretty and when you win 27 regular-season games, some of them are bound to be ugly. But all wins look the same in the box score, even when you hit four posts, flub a late 2-on-0 chance, and get caught chasing for much of the second half of the game, that 27th victory looks just as beautiful as the 26 that came before it. For the Penrose Cup champion #3 Denver Pioneers (27-8-0, 18-5-0 NCHC), it looks even better since that ugly, beautiful 2-1 victory came on Senior Night in front of 6,667 screaming fans at Magness Arena and extended their winning streak over their archrival Colorado College Tigers (10-20-3, 6-14-3 NCHC) to 10.
After the building honored seniors Casey Dornbach, Kyle Mayhew, Magnus Chrona, Brett Edwards, Lane Krenzen, and captain Justin Lee, the Pioneers started the game hot. They out-attempted the Tigers 32-13. Carter Mazur hit two pipes behind NCHC Goaltender of the Year candidate Kaidan Mbereko and for most of the period, they skated actual circles around the Tigers. If it wasn’t for those two pipes and Mbereko’s heroics, the Pioneers would have had a big, early lead and could have coasted to another easy Gold Pan Rivalry victory. Instead, they had to hunker down for a tight-checking, defense-first kind of game.
It wasn’t until nearly eight minutes into the second period that the game had a score other than 0-0. On the Pioneers’ second power play of the game, Mike Benning picked up the rebound off of a McKade Webster shot and beat Mbereko high, and knock the Tigers’ goaltender out of the game with an apparent injury. With Mbereko and Chrona out (he sustained a lower-body injury after the Penrose Cup-clinching sweep of Western Michigan and is considered week-to-week), the netminding responsibility fell on the shoulders of the two rivals’ backup goaltenders: Matt Davis for Denver and Matt Vernon for CC. Lee welcomed the latter to the game immediately with a Senior-Night goal less than two minutes after Benning’s marker.
“I loved how steady [Davis] was,” Mayhew said of Matt Davis’ 22-save performance. “They had a couple good chances and he was steady as a rock. You never know what happens in the playoffs, [we] have a dependable backstop.”
Lee’s goal would be it for Denver’s scoring, though. Vernon settled in after the goal and CC heightened its defensive effort and found its game. Near the end of the middle frame, just 10 seconds into a power play of their own, Hunter McKown scored CC’s only goal of the night and his second of the season against the Pioneers to cut DU’s lead in half. It was the first non-penalty shot goal that CC scored against DU this season and McKown remains the only Tiger to score in the 2022-23 edition of the Battle for the Gold Pan.
From there, the game played into CC’s hands. The Tigers played excellent defense and, for the most part, outworked the Pioneers, especially in their defensive end. They prevented Denver from getting set up in the offensive zone and sustaining any possessions. If the Tigers’ offense wasn’t so miserable (they’ve scored four goals in their last five games combined), that effort might have spurred them onto an upset victory. Instead, they failed to convert their chances and stayed alive in this game thanks only to the two additional posts that Denver hit and a botched two-on-oh look that ended with Casey Dornbach hitting the crossbar.
“Bounces didn’t really go our way at the end there,” Dornbach said. “But we got the win and that’s what matters. Quick turnaround tomorrow night…[have to] clean a few things up and I think we can score a few more.”
Denver withstood CC’s best efforts with the extra-skater in the final minutes and walked out of Magness Arena with their 10th-straight victory over the Tigers and a perfectly-scripted senior send-off. With so little to play for – both the Penrose Cup and Gold Pan have already been clinched – the Pios showed up and delivered when they needed to most to keep their archrivals from down south in their place.
“There’s still a lot to play for in our minds,” Lee said of the regular-season finale. “These are our rivals and you want to beat them no matter what the scenario is. So there’s a lot on the line here for us.”
With one more regular-season game left in Colorado Springs tomorrow night, don’t think for a second that the Pioneers are satisfied and willing to rest on their laurels. They may not be able to win another trophy tomorrow night, but they damn sure know that they’re playing for NCAA Tournament seeding, and earning a #1-seed is extremely important – they’re holding onto one at #3 in the Pairwise at the moment.
“There’s a lot on the line,” DU head coach David Carle said of this final weekend of the regular season. “A one-seed in the NCAA Tournament is critical in our opinion.”
For Kyle Mayhew and the rest of the seniors tonight, though, even though they know they have bigger goals on the horizon, it’s hard not to reminisce on a night like this.
“It’s been a crazy journey,” said Mayhew, who is on the verge of playing in his 150th game as a Pioneer. “I didn’t even know if I’d play 10 games when I first came here as a freshman.”
“Pretty good for a five-foot-nine, five-foot-ten on a good day defenseman playing in Fairbanks in the North American Hockey League,” Carle said of Mayhew.
David Carle Postgame
Colorado College 1
David Carle postgame: https://t.co/QUMH2kQJr7
— LetsGoDU (@LetsGoDU) March 4, 2023
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) March 4, 2023
Top photo credit: Grace Bradley/Clarkson Creative via DU Athletics