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.”
Cornell!!! Take a 1-0 lead to start the 1st thanks to Jack O’Leary 👀 pic.twitter.com/BwdtEozC8p
— EVERYTHING COLLEGE HOCKEY (@TeamECH) March 23, 2023
Ben Berard makes it 2-0 Cornell! Can they pull off the upset?
— EVERYTHING COLLEGE HOCKEY (@TeamECH) March 23, 2023
Some big stops by Magnus in this one.
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) March 23, 2023
Chrona stops a penalty shot to keep DU within 2 pic.twitter.com/qRDHUeiE9P
— CJ Fogler AKA Perc70 #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) March 23, 2023
Top photo credit: Matt Dewkett via DU Athletics