The Quest for the Quint is over. DU’s 11-game winning streak over the Colorado College Tigers is over. The Frozen Faceoff Semifinal losing and scoreless streak – now at two games – unfortunately continue. The #3 Denver Pioneers (30-9-0, 19-5-0 NCHC) traveled to the Frozen Faceoff at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul this weekend with high hopes to add more hardware to their trophy case in a historic season. Instead, the upset-hungry Colorado College Tigers (13-21-3, 6-15-3 NCHC) who were playing to keep their season alive played a perfect defensive game and used a lone power-play goal from Hunter McKown to earn a 1-0 victory and advance to tomorrow night’s NCHC Championship game.
Before the Pioneers even boarded their flight to the Twin Cities, they knew their NCAA Tournament fate. No matter what happened this weekend, they could not finish any higher than the #2 overall seed and no lower than #4 – in all likelihood, they’ll end up at #3. In other words, they knew that even if they were to somehow lose 10-0 to CC in today’s semifinal, they would anchor their NCAA Tournament region as the #1 seed. While the Pioneers would have never let on that it was in the back of their minds while they were on the ice in St. Paul, aside from goaltender Magnus Chrona, their play throughout the game against CC certainly indicated that thought was there.
From the jump, the Pioneers were a step behind the Tigers. They lost every 50/50 battle, they weren’t competitive along the boards, and they didn’t work nearly hard enough to get to the net front to take away elite CC goaltender Kaidan Mbereko’s eyes. Denver just didn’t play Denver hockey.
“[CC was] just able to keep us to the outside basically all night,” DU defenseman Kyle Mayhew said. “They kept us out there all night, we weren’t at the net front very much the whole game.”
Chrona, for his part, showed no signs of rust, playing in his first game since the sweep of Western Michigan in late February. He saw the puck well, stopped nearly everything that was sent his way, and singlehandedly kept the Pioneers in the game until he exited midway through the third period, seemingly aggravating his lower-body injury which kept him sidelined for the last four games.
“He’s fine, I pulled him. I wanted [Matt Davis] in there to be able to play the puck a bit more. [Chrona] had gotten the touches of the pucks that he needed and Magnus is just fine, DU head coach David Carle said, refuting the in-game injury report. “Not an injury issue – that was falsely reported.”
The only thing that Chrona couldn’t do for the Pioneers was score…and apparently, neither could anyone else on the roster, despite key offensive contributors McKade Webster, Massimo Rizzo, Sean Behrens, and Jared Wright all returning from injuries. In short, it was an ugly offensive effort.
“They wanted it more,” DU captain Justin Lee said of CC’s effort. “We struggled to penetrate through and get into the hard areas and [they] made our lives harder.”
As ugly as the effort was in the offensive zone, it was only amplified by their poor special teams performance. The country’s second-best power play went 0-for-4, including failures on two massive opportunities after CC took the lead. The beleaguered penalty-kill went 3-for-4 with CC leading scorer Hunter McKown scoring the game’s only goal on the Tigers’ second power play of the game. DU failed to adequately take McKown out of the play down low and when left alone, McKown does not miss. He went top right to beat Chrona and it was all the Tigers needed to pull off the upset, keep their season alive, and become the first 7-seed to play for the NCHC Championship.
“I thought [CC was] the better team,” Carle said. “They were much hungrier, much more desperate than we were.”
Now, the Pioneers’ attention turns to Sunday afternoon’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show. Again, Denver knows that it will be a #1 seed. The only thing they don’t know is who they will play and where. The latest prognosticators expect them to go to the Penn State-hosted Allentown, Pennsylvania region but no matter what, they’ll be flying to the eastern time zone as the Minnesota Golden Gophers have all but clinched the #1-overall seed and will assuredly go to the Fargo region.
The Quest for the Quint is now over. The Pioneers’ dream of winning five trophies in a season is gone, and deservedly so after this afternoon’s effort. But before each of DU’s last two national championship seasons, they were shut out in the Frozen Faceoff semifinal (2017: 1-0 UND, 2022: 2-0 UMD) so there’s no reason yet to fret. The Quest for the Quint is over but the Quest for the Quad ain’t bad.
“This team has shown an ability to look in the mirror and evaluate itself honestly,” Carle said when asked what his team can learn and take from this loss. “We did that a year ago and we’ve done that throughout this season in the moments of adversity we’ve had.
“We plan on doing the same thing again.”
Mbereko with the first big save of the game! 🙅♂️
— The NCHC (@TheNCHC) March 17, 2023
REPLAY: Mega stop by Magnus. pic.twitter.com/gR0dyXvkl4
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) March 17, 2023
Hunter's on the prowl! 🚨
— The NCHC (@TheNCHC) March 17, 2023
Top photo credit: Grace Bradley/Clarkson Creative via DU Athletics