Staking Out The Territory

As the 1995-96 season got started, Denver was expected to be one of the heavies in the WCHA. After all, the team had 14 of its top 17 scorers, along with the arguably-better half of a sterling two-man goalie rotation, returning from a team that finished third in the conference last year. With graduation decimating some of the top squads, notably Colorado College and Minnesota, it seemed the time was ripe for Denver to rule the West.

Didn’t happen. The team was stuck in a funk that started in February of the previous season. That team finished 2-8-2, including a pair of home losses to little-regarded St. Cloud that bounced Denver right out of postseason play, both in the WCHA and the NCAA.

This year’s team started like pretenders to the throne, beginning the season with three straight losses en route to a 3-5-0 start. That made the Pioneers 5-13-2 in their last 20 — and all this from a team that was supposed to contend for the WCHA title.

Head coach George Gwozdecky suggests that the expectations may have distracted his players. “It was difficult for us to play in the favorite role, especially against teams that were coming extra hard at us because we were the favorite.

“We had a lot of guys who were trying to do more than they were capable of doing, earlier in the year. All of a sudden we were trying too much, because we were struggling.”

Still, it always takes a little time for a squad to suffer the growing pains of a new season. Top goaltender Jim Mullin could see the troubles the team was going through.

“At the beginning of the season,” Mullin says, “everyone’s got their ruts. You’ve got new players, everyone is feeling each other out a little bit. That’s what started to happen. Then we started to pass real well, bring the puck out of the zone. We started to know where each other was on the ice, and that’s helped us gain some momentum.”

That momentum now is like a runaway freight train. The Pioneers are 8-2-2 in their last 12 games. The two losses were in Alaska, after a long trip, and a heart-breaking overtime defeat to Minnesota at Mariucci Arena. Denver recovered to gain the split each time.

So what’s the difference? How does this red-hot Denver squad differ from the team that opened the season with three straight losses?

“Team defense has become a priority,” says Mullin. “That’s our main focus. Defense first, and we’ll take the goals as they come.”

That defense was young indeed, at the start of the season. Of the six regulars, three are sophomores and one a freshman.

Gwozdecky praised the blueliners. “They’ve really matured. They’re playing really well together, [though] they’re not the kind of defense that’s going to make you go ‘Wow, boy, can they really jump up and play.’

“We’ve got some people who pride themselves on being strong from the red line on back. They move well together, they play together well as partners. It becomes a real strength for us, where earlier in the year perhaps it was a little bit of an inconsistency.”

The youngsters guarding the fort don’t seem like underclassmen to Mullin, who sees their handiwork up close every time he’s in net.

“I’ll tell you what. It doesn’t matter how old they are, the way they’ve been playing. It’s been great,” Mullin said. “They’re very tenacious out there. They block shots, they make the smart plays, they’re sacrificing their bodies. It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior — if you’re making those efforts, you’re going to play and play well, and that’s exactly what they’ve done.”

But even more crucial than the defensemen have been the guys who stand between the pipes. It seemed Denver had a done deal with Mullin, one of the league’s top returning goalies. But when Mullin lost his first three WCHA contests, displaying a 5.80 goals-against average and an embarrassing .813 save percentage, Gwozdecky was forced to look to a freshman, Stephen Wagner, for support. He got it.

“Wagner’s playing extremely well on Friday nights. I don’t think he expected he would play as much as he has during his freshman year. I think Jim Mullin really plays well when he has competition. He needs to play on edge a little bit. I think Stephen Wagner has done that.

“That’s one of the reasons [Mullin] wasn’t as effective early in the year. He probably felt it was his job, and maybe he didn’t have the intensity or the concentration he needed. One of the things that made Jim so effective in the past is that we had Sinuhe Wallenheimo, our other goaltender, competing against him.

“There’s no question both guys are giving us excellent goaltending, and there is no reason to expect they won’t continue that.”

Wallenheimo, the flashy Finnish goaltender, was a crowd-pleaser on the ice. His numbers weren’t as good as Mullin’s — a 3.48 goals-against compared to Mullin’s 3.13 — but his on-ice antics made him the more obvious of the two goalies. While the competition may have done Mullin some good, he didn’t have to enjoy it. When asked about Wallenheimo’s absence this year, he issued a terse “No comment.”

But Mullin harbors no such grudge against Wagner. “I don’t think any goalie is going to be happy about splitting a series, because every goalie wants to play as much as he can.

“But Steve’s been playing well — he deserves to play. He’s a freshman, and he’s been playing great all year. You can’t be selfish. If I’m not playing on Friday night, I can’t sit there and say, ‘Oh gosh, why am I not playing?’

“You can’t look at it like that. You have to say ‘Wow, this kid’s been playing great; the team’s been supporting him.’ He’s a freshman coming in and playing like this — that’s impressive.”

Even more impressive is what the competition in net has done for Mullin. He now leads the WCHA with a sparkling 2.77 GAA. He has two shut-outs, one over conference opponent Michigan Tech, and another against national power Clarkson, that coming in Clarkson’s own building.

And Wagner’s not far behind. He sports a solid 3.31 GAA and has wins over conference powers St. Cloud and Minnesota-Duluth.

Denver’s schedule has favored the Pioneers of late. They have recently played four games against teams near the bottom of the WCHA, and have another such series — against Northern Michigan — this weekend. “I think this will be a great test for us,” Gwozdecky said. “There’s no question you can get fired up to play with a lot of intensity and a lot of emotion in games against teams ahead of you, but the real test is to see how you do against teams that aren’t having the success that you’re having, and how you respond to that.

“There’s no question that we [didn’t do] the job in the first half the season. We’re a better team now, a more mature team, and a more confident team. With those things in place, I think we’ve set ourselves up.

“It is going to be very important that we take matters in our hands and do a good job against our opponents, no matter who they are. This league has shown this year that there is a lot of balance. There’s no question that the three teams at the bottom of the league are struggling right now … [but] if you take a night off, you’re going to get beat. Especially with the balance in this league this year. You have to be ready to play, and play hard.”

Mullin never let himself believe the games against the bottom teams would be a cakewalk. “I think in the WCHA … everyone knows how good the teams are, and I don’t think you can ever be at ease. It is so competitive in this league.”

But it’s all too easy to fall into that trap of good team, bad team, a vice the Pioneers succumbed to earlier in this year.

“Maybe toward the beginning of the season, we were kind of worried about each game. Looks at the standings and we’ll be playing who’s ranked. It shouldn’t really matter.

“I think that’s been a main focus of ours as well. We approach the game as though we don’t even know who we’re playing. We step on the ice, and whoever is out there is out there. If you start looking at the standings, you know, ‘Oh, we have a team in the lower division,’ it would change our play. We have to stay away from that. We have to maintain our focus and play as well as we can each game.”

Part of the reason Denver is playing so many teams at or near the bottom of the league is the unbalanced schedule the WCHA has adopted. Denver, like the other school in the conference, plays two teams in only one series apiece, while facing all remaining conference foes in two series.

This year Denver drew Minnesota and St. Cloud to short-shift. Most coaches would be happy to face these teams as little as possible, but not Gwozdecky.

“You always wish you could play teams that are ahead of you in the standings. Obviously you can’t control that, and you never can, but I wish we had St. Cloud two more times this year, and I wish we had Minnesota two more times this year. They’re ahead of us, and we don’t control our fate with them. We have to hope that other people help us.”

One of the problems that has faced the team is trouble playing on the larger ice surfaces. The aforementioned two recent losses, to Minnesota and Alaska-Anchorage, both came on Olympic-size ice sheets. The team had not played on the larger surface all season long, and playing on the big ice takes some adjustment.

“It took us a while to get used to it. Part of getting used to it is learning how to play in the neutral zone, defensively. Where your coverages are, and how much ice you can take back. How much space and time you can take away from your opponent.”

Gwozdecky will see how much the team learned when it travels to Wisconsin in late February, where they face the Badgers on their own large surface. Those could potentially be huge matchups.

Overall, the team seems to have found their niche. “You learn from the beginning of the season. We started to gel together as a team, and that just takes time,” said Mullin. “Every team is going to have their individuals for some games, but for the most part we have no individuals on this team.”

Gwozdecky reemphasized his sentiment.

“I think this team has matured an awful lot.

“This team has become a team. This group of guys has really bonded together, and fought through some real adversity. Having to overcome the very slow start to the year, this team has shown that it is very resilient. It is getting stronger and stronger, getting more confident and believing in themselves, and we’re still in the hunt.

“We’re playing the way we know we can play.”

And, really, who can ask more than that?