Pioneering Spirit

Remember Denver’s amazing penalty-kill in the last 80 seconds of the 2004 national-title game?

Maine had a six-on-three. Denver was under offensive assault by the Black Bears, but survived mostly with three seniors on the ice in Max Bull, Ryan Caldwell, and goalie Adam Berkhoel. The other penalty-killer was a gangly freshman defenseman named Matt Carle.

Now a junior, Carle is the backbone of a Denver team that has won back-to-back NCAA titles. After losing his prolific power-play partner in Brett Skinner, Carle has upped his level of play into what should be a Hobey Baker-winning season. Leading the team in scoring, Carle has been asked to log 35 or more minutes a night in the game’s top conference.

Matt Carle has been a key component of Denver's consecutive national championships (photo: Melissa Wade).

Matt Carle has been a key component of Denver’s consecutive national championships (photo: Melissa Wade).

He has responded by carrying the defensive load as well, despite injuries to two of Denver’s key defensemen.

Hobey mention is nothing new to the state of Colorado. 90 miles south, Colorado College has seen Peter Sejna and Marty Sertich win the coveted award. Brett Sterling remains a serious contender, which would give CC three winners in four years. However, a close look at the season Carle has had makes him a pretty deserving choice.

“He has the ability to play and be a factor in both ends of the ice,” said Denver head coach George Gwozdecky. “He also has the ability to keep his composure when chaos ensues around him.”

To be a Hobey candidate, Gwozdecky feels that the obvious factors have to be there, and that is a mastery of the fundamentals of shooting, passing, and skating. Then there are the intangibles that the great defensemen in college hockey have all had. Gwozdecky sees that in Carle.

“He reminds me a lot of Mike Mottau,” said Gwozdecky, referring to the Hobey Baker winner from Boston College. “The other guy that comes to mind when I watch Matt is (current U.S. Olympian and captain of Minnesota’s 2002 national title team) Jordan Leopold.

“These guys possessed special traits. The ability to read a play, make a play anywhere on the ice, play in their own end, be physical, and create offense. Those two had it, and so does Matt, and Matt is only a junior.”

Gwozdecky is amazed by how fast Carle assimilated into the program. His ability to be an immediate factor is something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Denver staff, and was one of the reasons Carle was out there for the most important 80 seconds in Pioneer history.

Denver has had a season similar to the one two seasons ago when the Pioneers surprised everyone by beating Minnesota-Duluth and Maine in the Frozen Four to win it. Injuries were a big factor then, and have taken their toll this season. They lost Brock Trotter in their first game, and have seen injuries take out defensemen Adrian Veideman and highly-touted freshman Chris Butler as well.

Sporting a defensive corps of mostly freshmen and sophomores, Denver has gotten big performances from Paul Stastny and captain Gabe Gauthier. Gauthier, now in his final season, looks like the player who was such a factor in last year’s playoffs. He has chipped in 31 points in 29 games.

More than that, he is having a lot of fun.

“He has always enjoyed and been at his best at this time of year,” said Gwozdecky, who has won national titles as a player (Wisconsin), an assistant coach (Michigan State), and a head coach (Denver). “His time in college hockey is almost done, so he has really kicked it into high gear. His enthusiasm and determination are so obvious. And Paul Stastny has been great with him on that line.”

That line, and all of the Pioneers, had better be ready for the beast that awaits them. Denver rolls into Mariucci Arena this weekend on the heels of a seven-game winning streak, and the Pioneers have fired on all cylinders in the past month. The Gophers took three of four points from Denver in a terrific series in Denver in November.

Getting past Minnesota State last weekend was no small feat for Denver, but the Pioneers exorcised that demon by sweeping the Purple Bull. Minnesota State is the team that gives Denver fits, and after an early lead by Denver, Minnesota State roared back.

The Pioneers, who blew a 7-1 second-period led at Mankato two seasons ago, felt that Armageddon was coming. However, they righted the ship and took a 5-3 lead to the dressing room after the first, and rolled from there.

“That was a big series for us,” said Gwozdecky. “As the weekend went on, we were able to really force ourselves to play the way we needed to.”

Now to Minnesota. Wisconsin expects No. 1 goalie Brian Elliott back this weekend or next, so the Badgers are poised for a run at the top. Minnesota always is, and Denver is no stranger to winning the WCHA. However, Gwozdecky feels that the top priority is being strong physically, mentally, and emotionally when the postseason begins.

“Winning the WCHA is tough, and you could use a lot of energy doing it,” said Gwozdecky, whose team shared the top spot with Colorado College last season. “You have to be careful where you put your priorities at this time of year. In 2001-02, we won the league and then lost in the national tournament to Michigan.

“You have to be careful. Will your tank be half-full or half-empty?”

Right now, the tank is full as the Denver express heads into a huge weekend.