Denver Flames Out in Manchester, Dashing Hopes for Repeat & Record 10th Title

Flat. Slow. Uninspired. Painful. Any number of terrible adjectives came to mind watching the defending national champions in the first round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament. The #1-seed Denver Pioneers flew to New Hampshire with high expectations, hoping to come home Sunday with a second-straight Frozen Four berth and a trip to Tampa in the offing. Instead, playing against the 4th-seed Cornell Big Red in the Manchester Regional semifinal, the Pioneers came out flat, coughed up two first-period goals, and bowed out in the first round for the first time since 2014. They barely mustered a whimper in the 2-0 shutout loss which ended their season in the same building where legendary former head coach George Gwozdecky coached his final DU game, also in the first round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

It might be an oversimplification to say that Cornell just wanted the victory more than Denver. But in a sport where “effort” and “compete-level” are so often talked about with the same reverence as scoring goals, the Big Red completely dominated the game. Looking at the box score, whether you focus on shot attempts, faceoffs won, or almost any of them, Denver was the second-best team on the ice by a wide margin.

“They’re a good team,” DU forward Carter Mazur said. ” They pressured us well and we couldn’t really adjust to that until the second period…it felt like we started to match that in the second and third.”

Denver started the game slow and never recovered. Goaltender Magnus Chrona made the first few saves of the game but after Sean Behrens, a normally surehanded defenseman, turned the puck over deep in his own zone, Matt Stienburg found Max Andreev in front of the net who shot for a rebound. Jack O’Leary was in the right place at the right time and he backhanded a shot over Chrona’s pad and the Big Red were off and running, leaving the Pioneers in their dust. Later in the period, Ben Berard took advantage of Chrona’s lone miscue of the game when DU’s goaltender lost track of the puck behind the net and the Cornell forward tucked it around the post to double the lead and give the underdogs all the insurance they’d need en route to the shutout.

“We didn’t start [the game] how we wanted to,” DU head coach David Carle said after the game. “Got better as it went on but ultimately did not find a way to crack through like we have in games past, in this tournament.”

For a team entering the NCAA Tournament with such high expectations and 30 wins under their belt after sweeping Miami in the NCHC Quarterfinals, Denver’s final two games – 1-0 shutout to CC in the Frozen Faceoff and 2-0 shutout to Cornell in the NCAA first round – were perplexing, to say the least. The Pioneers boasted one of the most potent offensive attacks in the country, scoring 3.85 goals per game, and a top-three power play unit clicking at 26.6%. And yet they were shut out in each of their last two games. DU’s middling penalty kill received much of the talk and skepticism throughout the season but it was, ironically, their lack of offense when the games mattered most that derailed and ended their season.

“We ran into two hot goaltenders,” Mazur added, referencing last weekend’s shutout against CC whose goaltender Kaidan Mbereko earned the shutout. “We still need to find ways to put the puck in the back of the net and we didn’t do that.”

There will be plenty of platitudes like “Cornell wanted it more” and “The Big Red were just the better team today” uttered but the fact remains that the biggest strength of this team failed to come through when it counted, even when they were gifted with a five-minute power play in the second period. Even the penalty kill which ranked 45th nationally at just 78.0%, got the job done, killing off all three of Cornell’s power plays, including Justin Lee’s five-minute major for contact to the head.

“They get in your way,” Carle said of Cornell and their ability to keep DU at bay all game long. “They’re physical, they defend the inside of the dots well, they block a lot of shots, and their goaltender was there when things did break down.”

As poorly as DU played, Cornell deserves credit for effectively executing the same gameplan that CC threw at Denver in St. Paul last weekend. They kept the Pioneers to the outside, got sticks and bodies in passing and shooting lanes, and leaned on their elite goaltender in the few moments that they needed to. Cornell goaltender Ian Shane, for his part, stopped all 27 DU shots, 16 of which came in the third period alone when DU made its final (only?) push.

“Their goalie stood on his head,” Mazur said. “I felt like we let go in a way at the end, but I feel like we have a lot more to show in the coming years.”

The most puzzling and, quite frankly, alarming part of these last two games is the Pioneers’ complete and inexplicable departure from “Denver Hockey,” the kind of relentless play that earned them 30 victories this year. There was no urgency to DU’s game, even late in the third period with the extra skater. It seemed they were playing with an air of complacency throughout the first two periods, as though the game was going to magically be handed to them in the end.

Yes, Cornell was the hungrier team and earned every bit of this upset. But make no mistake, the Pioneers reaped what they sowed in this game. It was an uncharacteristic effort on the national stage in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and the Pioneers didn’t deliver.

“Winning championships is not easy,” Carle said. “Our group last year found a way to do that. All these players who are graduating were a part of that. They’ll walk together forever as champions with last year’s group.”

There is a lot for this Pioneers team to be proud of this season. They won 30 games in consecutive seasons for the first time ever, they won their second-straight Penrose Cup, and they held onto the Gold Pan for another year.

But Denver Hockey measures success only by their performance this time of year and by that criteria, the 2022-23 Pioneers failed.

“When we recruit student-athletes to Denver, we talk a lot about playing in this tournament, playing in big moments, getting to Frozen Fours, and hanging banners,” Carle said. “We fell short of that goal this season. Adding to the legacy and tradition that is Denver hockey is not an easy thing to do.”


Top photo credit: Matt Dewkett via DU Athletics

22 thoughts on “Denver Flames Out in Manchester, Dashing Hopes for Repeat & Record 10th Title”

  1. One of the most disappointing and perplexing endings to a season that I have experienced as a DU fan. This team had so much potential but their drive and determination just seemed to disappear the last two games. I don’t understand what happened.

  2. Shocking, bewildering, maddening, perplexing, frustrating……….pick your adjective. That was a sad and bizarre way for this DU team to end the season. As great as the regular season was and despite all of the accomplishments, this was an epic flameout. This team had all the ingredients for another title run, and it came to a sudden and shocking end today. It’s hard to process.

    The team we saw today and last week against CC was a shell of the team was saw for most of the regular season. I can’t help but wonder what might have been for the Pios. Again, it’s very difficult to try and ascertain what happened in this last week and where things went so sideways. It’s going to be a long offseason.

    Having said all that, congrats to Cornell. No question they were the better team today and deserved to win. They were effective in all phases.

    I need another beer.

    1. BTW, The game was very well-officiated and had nothing to do with the final score. That game was decided on the ice.

  3. I’ll offer an alternative. I didn’t see a DU team that was skating slow, or that wasn’t skating hard. I thought that DU showed a decent amount of drive. Not great, but enough to normally win. I think Cornell was just so effective at keeping DU to the outside, and out of the grade A shooting zone, that DU’s hard and fast skating didn’t lead to any good opportunities. More of a game planning problem. Like DU didn’t anticipate that what happened to them a game before this could happen again. Plus, you absolutely have to score one goal during a 5 minute power play, and you can’t take bad major penalties in a one-and-done.

    So while it’s a huge disappointment, I don’t view it as a lazy effort. Just poor game plan, poor execution, and a really good game by Cornell. Shout out to Chrona, though. He had one bad mistake, but he was totally locked in after that.

  4. Nick said almost everything that needs to be said in this extremely well-written, honest article. We’re all sad that this promising DU season ended they way it did, underpowered, deflating and very perplexing…Most of you are thinking “This just wasn’t the same Pioneer Hockey we saw all season long”…

    I’ve seen many DU seasons for nearly 40 years now, and 90% of them ended in a loss, including many first round NCAA flameouts.

    One explanation Nick didn’t mention may be that DU was nowhere near as good a team as its 30-win season, Penrose Cup Championship season would indicate. The reality is that the mighty NCHC had a VERY down year as a league. North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth and Omaha, all usually playoff level teams, all missed the NCAA dance. And NCAA qualifier WMU was run out of the building today by BU, 5-1. Yikes. The reality is that 30-win DU beat only ONE team that actually finished in the top 10 of the Pairwise this year — St Cloud State, and beat them just once, back in early November, losing the other three games to the Cloudies.

    Yes, these are college athletes play a long season and are they are not machines, but certainly there should be some hard questions asked about why DU was so badly outworked for most of the last six periods of their season. Both CC and Cornell were both better than DU when it mattered, and the Pios went crashing out out of the postseason without a goal in its last two games, with both games marred by flat, uninspired starts and long, long stretches of being outworked by their opponents.

    I am also personally still harboring some suspicions that this DU team may be far more banged up (or perhaps sick) than we’ll ever know. We all saw the star-depleted lineups vs Miami in the league playoffs, and that now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t goalie pull with Chrona late against CC in St. Paul. Carle may have been doing everything he could to cover for his hurting guys… I get that — it’s playoff time and injuries are for inside the locker room, not public knowledge.

    Whatever sapped the Pios this post season, we may never know…

    1. I am having the same suspicions as Swami that DU is more injured/sick than we know. It’s really the only explanation that kind of makes sense to me about why the last two games were so off.

  5. Cornell used CC blueprint on shutting DU down. DU didn’t feel like they needed any adjustments and paid the price.

  6. Cornell watched the CC tapes on how to shut down DU. Apparently we didn’t feel the urgency to make the necessary adjustments. We go home early as a consequence.

  7. Dunker agrees with Puck that our 30 win season was not all its cracked up to be. I think our high PairWise was based in some part to the quantity of wins, not the quality of our wins. 10 of our wins came at the expense of CC and Miami. Our best OOC win was Alaska. One possible glimmer of hope for the future is in Mazur’s final quote where he states that we have a lot more to prove in coming years. Maybe he and some others will be here for the 23-24 season.

  8. Today, Cornell won most of the board battles. I think the tv announcer said that the Big Red are the biggest, heaviest team in the national tournament while DU was one of the smallest and it showed in terms of Cornell’s ability to wear Denver down in the corners. Cornell chewed up valuable clock time, particularly on the penalty kill, just eating pucks along the boards.

    They looked like vintage Mike Schafer coached Cornell teams-they get a lead and make it next to impossible to tie it up with their defense first structure.

  9. So many good points and observations about the season and the playoffs. There’s no doubt that illness and injuries played a part in the last two games.

    However, as was mentioned back in November, DU was small, young, and not as talented as last year’s team. The relatively easy schedule didn’t help prepare for them the best teams in the country. The NCHC programs in general were a noticable notch below the past several seasons.

    It’s now time to reflect, reload, retool, and fix the shortcomings that were so glaringly obvious today. Maybe there will be opportunities to address some of the known issues with players entering the transfer portal.

    Best of luck to DC, his assistants, and the players this offseason. Thanks for an exciting run. I sure enjoyed it…until the end anyway.

    I’m already looking forward to next season. Go Pioneers!

  10. I would like to see DU get bigger and play with more of an edge. Games like last night aren’t won on the perimeter. Guys have got to want to get to the net, get a net front presence and take away the goalie’s eyes. Seems like when Denver is beaten, teams know to just pack the middle of the ice and clog things up. Wonder if we’ll see any early departures.

  11. Good article, sums it all up nicely. Cornell looked big. I don’t recall watching a DU game this season where I felt like DU looked small like they did yesterday. I don’t know if that was just a result of losing all those puck battles that they seemed small out there or if that is a reality, but it was surprising. Sometimes DU looked complacent. At other times, especially on the PP, it looked like their offensive confidence had evaporated. Not sure how a team can be complacent and also lack confidence, but unfortunately they seem to have achieved that yesterday.

    Ah well, back to the drawing board. The future is bright for this group. Hopefully coach is checking the portal for some super-senior grinders!

  12. Theories abound, and we can all try to analyze and scrutinize what went wrong (and why) until we are blue in the face, but the bottom line is in this last week of play, this wasn’t the same DU team we saw throughout the season. I just didn’t see the same drive, determination, and intensity. It started from the drop of the puck against CC and continued through last night. Playoff hockey is about maximum effort, winning puck battles, being physical, getting to the front of the net, being smart with the puck, and finishing your chances. I saw very little of that in the last 2 games from DU.

    I’m sure this loss will sting for a while, but I hope these guys can sit back at some point and reflect on the many terrific accomplishments and memories formed from the season. They were a lot of fun to watch.

  13. Bobby Brink would have been a big difference maker. We were in trouble in Boston last year ,being outplayed with Chrona saving our ass and then Brink made a great play with a pass to the front of the net and Goal no 1. Game changed right there.

    WE missed him big time yesterday.

  14. As good as the Big Ten teams appear to be, it does look like Cornell was the best 4 seed out of the four. So a bit unfortunate there. But are what you gonna do, still gotta win that game. Is there any chance for a Mazur return? Any chance that he’d want to add some more muscle, develop physically with another year of college to make a more seamless leap to the pros a year from now? Wishful thinking?

  15. In my view, no one on this DU team is NHL-ready, yet. But at least four or five of the guys are AHL-ready, so it will come down to a personal decision that each will have to make with the counsel of families, DU coaches, Agents and NHL team management. Benning is probably the guy that’s closest to being ready for the show. He is a junior, and NHL teams often don’t like to risk solid prospects becoming seniors, because they can walk away as free agents after senior year. Benning’s family is loaded with former NHL players and management, and they will have a very informed opinion. His brother Matt plays for the Edmonton Oilers (NHL), his father Brian played 568 NHL games from 1984-95 for the St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, Edmonton Oilers and Florida Panthers. His uncle Jim played 610 NHL games from 1981-1990 and is the former General Manager of the Vancouver Canucks. And his Uncle Mark was a Harvard All-American and played pro in Europe. But Hockey-wise, I believe even Benning could use more NCHC seasoning and come back to DU as a Hobey Candidate.

    Mazur could use more speed and strength, as could Rizzo and Behrens. All four of them could be Hobey Baker candidates next year, and lead DU to perhaps another NCAA run. Lee, Mayhew and Dornbach are probably AHL candidates and will be missed next year as graduates.

    There is also the transfer portal to worry about. Every player on DU probably got more ice time than they were expecting, due to injuries this season. Edwards and Krenzen do have fifth years that they could use elsewhere, in case DU does not have scholarships for them.

  16. For the first time since the NCHC was formed, there are no NCHC teams in the Frozen Four this year. Very disappointing.

  17. Disappointing end to the season. What about getting a Big Ten team on the schedule next year? Big 10 teams have the resources to be tough in almost any sport. NCHC has challenges. Miami is very weak. Maybe adding Arizona St. is a first step. I agree the 30 wins this year were from a weak schedule. DU needs to continue to schedule east coast teams and forget the Lindenwoods. Schedule a Penn St., Wisconsin or Michigan (Wolverines likely won’t visit Denver).

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