No. 1 and No. 2 in the league. The second-longest win streak in the nation meets the longest win streak in the nation. No. 1 in the country hosts No. 10.
Minnesota-Duluth vs. Denver, to close out the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center after 45 years.
Yep, it’s a big one. The series also hosts two teams that are exceeding expectations, although one (Denver) more than the other.
The Pioneers’ story
The Pioneers were picked to make home ice this season, but they weren’t picked to do as well as they have been thus far this season. The Pioneers lost a lot over the summer, and they had a giant question mark in net coming in.
The giant question mark has turned into an emphatic exclamation point, as we all know, as freshman Sam Brittain took advantage of a window of opportunity thanks to an Adam Murray groin injury and has stolen the job and kept it thanks to his ridiculous numbers (1.95 goals-against average, .932 save percentage), second in the league to North Dakota’s Aaron Dell and right above Duluth’s Aaron Crandall.
However, there have been other factors as well, particularly the play of the freshmen. Beau Bennett, while he hasn’t made as big of a dent in the score sheet as some may have thought, is always noticed on the ice. Jason Zucker is tied for second in the league in points (12) and in goals (9).
Moreover, defenseman David Makowski, tied for 10th in the league and first among defensemen with 10 points, is garnering high praise and special comparisons from his coach.
“The one thing he’s really good at, that is difficult for defensemen, old or young, [is] when you get the puck at the offensive point, he will create, he will find that shot lane and get the puck through to the net,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “Some guys just have an innate ability to do that; some guys really struggle doing that. I would say the majority of defensemen have a tough time at being able to get the puck to the net. That’s one thing, I think, that Matt Carle had that ability as well to create that open lane.”
All these things add up to a pleased Gwozdecky.
“Pleased and surprised, no question,” he said. “And if you also would have said you’re also going to miss Jesse Martin, I would have said, ‘Oh boy, I don’t know how we would be able to do that,’ but certainly being witness to every day and how this team has developed … especially some of the more inexperienced players.”
The scary part? Gwozdecky thinks they can be even better. Take, for example, last weekend’s Denver Cup, particularly Friday night. On Friday, after the Pioneers beat Lake Superior State 6-3, Gwozdecky was, in his words, “extremely unhappy” with the way his team played … despite the fact it, you know, won.
The reason why? Keep reading.
“Even though we’re not playing, for whatever reason it is, we’re not having the kind of success in the game I think we should have and I’m critical of our play, we’re finding a way to win games, which is a real plus and the end result is that’s what you want,” he said. “But certainly I’m critical because I see glimpses of the potential that, as a team, we have.”
The Bulldogs’ story
Minnesota-Duluth, on the other hand (or in the other corner, to mix up my sports here), also keeps finding ways to win, leading the Bulldogs to an 11-1-2 record (8-1-1 in conference), with the only loss coming at North Dakota.
Although the Bulldogs were expected to be good (media picked them second; Tyler, the coaches and myself picked them third), I don’t think any of us expected them to be quite this good.
That being said, the pieces were all there.
The Bulldogs had arguably the best line in college hockey returning in Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine and all three are lighting it up once again this year — the Connollys both have 20 points and Fontaine follows closely with 17.
They lost one goalie, but returned the one with the better statistics in senior Kenny Reiter. Reiter has been sharing time this season with Crandall and both are doing quite respectably (2.80 goals-against average and a .888 save percentage for Reiter and 1.90 GAA and a .917 save percentage for Crandall).
The Bulldogs have the third-highest scoring offense in the country, averaging 4.07 goals per game. They’re also tied for 13th in scoring defense, allowing only 2.5 goals per game. They have the nation’s sixth-best power play (25.7 percent).
Their main fault, if you even want to call it that, is only an average penalty kill, coming in at 37th with an 80.6 percent success rate. They also haven’t lost in extra hockey yet this season, something we talked about earlier this season.
All of this combines to make a happy, albeit slightly surprised, coach Scott Sandelin.
“I think going into the year, certainly we had high expectations for ourselves, but you’ve got to live up to those,” he said. “We’ve been in a lot of tight games and found ways to win those and maybe we didn’t deserve to, but that’s the way it goes. It’s a group that’s, when you’re in a lot of those games, I think you grow a little bit.
“I don’t know. I mean, we’ve looked at getting off to a good start and certainly against the teams in our league, they’ve all been tight. You look at all the overtime games; that’s kind of how our league is,” he continued. “But, we’ve managed to win those games so maybe [I’m] a little bit surprised, but I guess we’ve had some good fortune.”
The upcoming games
Needless to say, both coaches are looking forward to this weekend for several reasons.
For the Pioneers, this is the second time they’ve faced a No. 1 team this season (last time was against Boston College back in October) and they’re looking to perform a little better.
“They deserve to be the No. 1 team in our league and the No. 1 team in the country right now,” Gwozdecky said. “They’re playing extremely well and I think if everything goes according to their plan, I think they’re going to have a long run in the postseason.
“Not only are we playing the No. 1 team in the country in their own rink, but this is the swan song for the old Duluth Entertainment and Convention Complex, the DECC as they call it, and this is the last weekend the Bulldogs will ever play there. So the tickets are hard to get, they’re going to have all kinds of nostalgia and events going on and so I’m sure that the crowd and both nights the building is going to be even more energized and excited because it’s the last time. We’re looking forward to the challenge, there’s no question.”
For the Bulldogs, it’s about remaining focused to be able to match up against a team that Sandelin believes is very similar to his own.
“Considering it’s the last weekend, it probably couldn’t work any better as far as the story lines,” he said. “Obviously, they’re playing well.
“I think it’s going to be hopefully a great weekend for hockey. I think it’s going to be a great series. We play very similar, both teams like to get up and down the rink [and] they certainly have some talented players,” he said. “I hope the weekend off, we didn’t lose anything, [you] always have to worry about that a little bit. But I think the guys are excited to get back playing and we know it’s going to be a good up-and-down-the-rink-type series and hopefully it’s an entertaining weekend for people.”
Marvin returns to the Forks
Another story this weekend is that it marks St. Cloud State’s Aaron Marvin’s first trip back to Grand Forks since his check to Chay Genoway ended the North Dakota defenseman’s season last November.
While this weekend has the potential to get ugly (there’s no love lost between the two fan bases, at least) the North Dakota players have only one thing on their minds — getting four points.
“Our concern is strictly, we want to get four points, that’s all we’re concerned with,” Sioux forward Mario Lamoureux said. “We’re not worried about getting revenge. That’s not in our minds.”
“That’s just in the past,” Genoway said. “It’s just a big four points for us. It’s WCHA, we were off from the WCHA last weekend, so we’re just focused on our four points ahead of us here.”
For my part, I hope that it doesn’t get ugly as we’ve had enough ugly already. We don’t need any more.
Furthermore, I know that both fan bases are still hung up on what happened. I mean, it’s understandable. North Dakota fans are still angry at Marvin and St. Cloud fans are upset because they think that everything got blown out of proportion. I understand fandom. I really do. I was a psycho rabid Avalanche fan back in my high school days.
And it may be my age talking, but seriously? It was over a year ago. I know that there’s bitterness, but honestly. If I may be so cliched, build a bridge and get over it.