A year’s worth of great tactical preparation, following the course that was expected and, sure, a little bit of luck came crashing down in one period in April.
Everything had gone as planned. Two titles and a bye. Everything they had hoped for. Gone in 20 minutes.
NCAA hockey is cruel. But the Denver Pioneers are raring to make another go at it this season, and they have more than enough motivation.
The defending MacNaughton Cup and Broadmoor Trophy champions had their seemingly unstoppable run toward the Frozen Four stopped by a three-goal Michigan third period in the national quarterfinals. Maybe the reason it was so stunning was that the Pioneers had ridden roughshod over every other challenge in their path.
Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky confirmed the expected — that one loss stuck in the minds of the players and the coaching staff throughout the summer.
But they did something about that. Many of the Denver players, as they did before their stellar 2001-2002 season, spent the summer on campus working out, preparing to be a team to beat in the WCHA.
“The way our season finished was very difficult for our players to deal with,” Gwozdecky said. “We really felt we could compete for a national title and we wanted to be in that Frozen Four, and we fell one game, or maybe more importantly one period short.
“It’s something that I think, for all our guys, motivates them. I think they realize that we have a good team, we have a lot of experience, a lot of returning talent at every position. As a result, we expect to be competitive in this league.”
For some, Denver being competitive in the WCHA is a given this season. Its nationally renowned goaltending tandem of Wade Dubielewicz and Adam Berkhoel is back. The Pioneers lose only one player, Chris Paradise, from their top 10 scorers last season. It’s a formula for success.
That’s not to say it’ll be handed to them, however. Despite the obvious strength of the goaltending corps, the Pioneers will have to overcome the loss of half of their top defensemen.
Jesse Cook, Erik Adams and Bryan Vines each played at least 38 of the Pioneers’ 41 games last season, and formed part of a defense that ranked best in the league in overall goals against. Also gone is James Armstrong, who played 18 games last year.
While the goaltending might be able to hold its own despite a sub-par effort from the defense, that’s not the path the Pioneers want to take.
Aaron MacKenzie and Ryan Caldwell are good bets to excel on defense, but, as a group, the kind of experience that a WCHA schedule demands isn’t readily apparent.
“I think the biggest challenge our inexperienced defense will have will be learning and dealing with stronger and quicker players, especially in the defensive zone,” Gwozdecky said, “and then when you do get the puck on your stick, how quickly you move the puck up ice, when you’ve got to move it, how you’ve got to move it. Those are things that are going to be a work in progress.”
Gwozdecky said newcomers Matt Laatsch, Nick Larson, Brett Skinner and Scott Drewicki are going to be good down the road. The question is, can they be good enough to step into the lineup in the first semester of their freshman season?
The responsibility doesn’t lie entirely with the freshmen. The Pioneers’ defensive zone system is based around help from the forwards, so they’ll get a bit of a reprieve there.
“When the attack is coming up the ice against us, rarely is it the responsibility of our defensemen to make the play,” Gwozdecky said. “I think that takes an awful lot of heat and stress off of people who are inexperienced.”
Denver’s goaltending and offense are anything but inexperienced. Dubielewicz turned down NHL free agent offers to return for his senior season, and he and Berkhoel form the league’s, and probably the nation’s, top goaltending tandem.
The Pioneers again will go with a rotation between the two, and the only thing Gwozdecky said he’d like to change is he’d like to keep the rotation going through the playoffs.
“It can work. I’ve seen it work,” Gwozdecky said. “When you have two outstanding goaltenders like we have, you’ve got to get them both playing time. The team has confidence in them, so why not stay with the rotation we have, the thing that’s given us success up to this point?”
The same could be said for the offense. Losing only Paradise and David Neale, the vast majority of the offense is untouched.
Connor James had a solid sophomore season to follow a great freshman year, and Kevin Doell and Greg Barber made significant jumps in development to score 43 and 35 points, respectively, last season.
This season, the Pioneers are hoping for similar jumps from Jon Foster, Matt Weber, Kevin Ulanski and Lukas Dora.
As they set out to defend their titles, the Pioneers have captured the attention of their coach with their good attitude. The race is on again, and the Pioneers appear sure to be there every step of the way.
“There’s no question this team, I believe, has good leadership, we’ve got experience,” Gwozdecky said. “Obviously, you never know how the health is going to be, but health a lot of times comes down to what kind of shape you’re in, what kind of condition you’re in. Our conditioning levels are terrific, the best we’ve been.
“Up to this point, our team has done everything they can to be ready to start the season.”