We all knew Denver would be pretty good coming into this season, despite all of its offseason losses in important roster chunks and goaltending.
If you had given the Pioneers the benefit of the doubt by looking at their history, their second-place spot in the league makes sense.
What’s been surprising, however, is how they’ve done it.
Fate has thrown Denver a lot of obstacles this season, in many forms:
• Goaltender Adam Murray goes down with injury in the first few weeks of the season.
• Defenseman Paul Phillips is out for a few games due to a random nasal injury.
• Forward Jesse Martin gets checked and is done for the season.
• Forward Beau Bennett goes down with a knee injury.
• Forwards Jason Zucker and Drew Shore, the team’s top two scorers, leave for World Juniors.
• Defenseman William Wrenn leaves the team for major juniors.
Granted, the first half of that list happened in the first month of the season, which was, admittedly, the roughest for DU (3-3-2). Since then, however, the team has rolled with the proverbial punches, brushing the items of the second half of the list away as if they were nothing.
The question is, what’s Denver’s secret? How were they able to survive that first month and come out of it as one of the dominant forces in the WCHA?
In short, it comes down to the team’s mental makeup and leadership.
“This team has had many examples of that resiliency, whether it’s coming from behind or dealing with the injuries that we’ve had, dealing with the loss of one of our captains and our senior center, dealing with so many changes from last year’s team — turnover if you will, dealing with a very challenging, difficult early season schedule,” said coach George Gwozdecky. “I think that all boils down to what the mental makeup is of this team. They’re strong of character and they believe if they all work as one, good things are going to happen.”
Take, for example, last Saturday’s game against Minnesota State. Denver got into an early 3-0 hole, but over the course of the latter half of the game, the team kept clawing back and eventually won in overtime.
“It’s funny how this team continues to play,” said Gwozdecky. “It’s strange, normally when you’re winning a game, you have a feeling of comfort … where you’re up and you know you’re probably going to win the game.
“With this team, we’re down and I’ve got a really good feeling we’re going to win the game. That’s certainly not a comfortable feeling to have, but it’s a unique thing about this team,” he continued. “They don’t fear playing from behind and I think there’s no real surprise to them when they’re able to compete from behind and get back into the game.”
That lack of fear all stems from the team’s ability to respond to challenges, something Gwozdecky calls a “tremendous attribute, a tremendous characteristic.”
It’s also something that he believes stems from the team’s leadership.
“The first place you look at is our leadership. You have to,” he said. “You can talk about all the great talent we have in this class or this class but none of that would be as successful if it wasn’t for the leadership we have in that locker room. Kyle Ostrow and Dusty Jackson and Chris Nutini and Jesse Martin and John Lee … I think those guys have done a masterful job of making sure their game is in order and what they’re doing by example is the right thing and making sure everyone else understands and follows their lead and plays their role and understands that these are our goals and this is how we’re going to get there, understanding full well there are going to be challenges throughout the season because everybody else wants to be successful, too.”
Given the nature of the WCHA beast, the Pioneers are certainly going to end up facing a few more challenges before the season is over, starting this weekend with always tricky Alaska-Anchorage.
Luckily for Denver and its fans, it sounds as if Gwozdecky is gearing up for the ride.
“We still have seven weeks left before the best part of the season and the most important part of the season,” he said. “The part of the season where, unfortunately, as we’ve found in the past, everybody equates what you’ve done to what you do in the postseason.”
In other words, this team isn’t done rising to the occasion yet.
Matchups by the numbers: Resuscitation edition
In which we look at each of the upcoming weekly series, except Minnesota vs. the bye.
Bemidji State vs. St. Cloud State
Records: BSU — 9-11-2 (5-9-2 WCHA). SCSU — 9-11-2 (5-8-1 WCHA).
Head-to-head: BSU leads the overall series, 43-36-3.
Last meeting: The teams split back on Nov. 5-6: SCSU 6, BSU 3; BSU 3, SCSU 2 (OT).
PP/PK: BSU 18.4 percent PP (26th in nation), 79.8 percent PK (43rd in nation). SCSU 16.2 percent PP (36th in nation). 83 percent PK (28th in nation).
Streaks: BSU two-game unbeaten. SCSU four-game unbeaten.
Goaltending: BSU — Dan Bakala (15 GP, 8-6-1, 2.12 GAA, .926 save percentage). SCSU — Mike Lee (17 GP, 7-7-1, 2.89 GAA, .901 save percentage).
Leading scorer: BSU — Jordan George (9-14–23). SCSU — Drew LeBlanc (8-18–26).
Notes: BSU’s Ryan Adams was the WCHA’s defensive player of the week this week.
Denver vs. Alaska-Anchorage
Records: DU — 14-5-5 (10-3-3 WCHA). UAA — 7-10-3 (6-8-2 WCHA).
Head-to-head: DU leads the overall series, 42-15-7.
Last meeting: DU took three points back on Dec. 10-11: DU 5, UAA 3; DU 2, UAA 2.
PP/PK: DU 18.9 percent PP (t-23rd in nation), 83.8 percent PK (21st in nation). UAA 15.9 percent PP (37th in nation), 78.5 percent PK (48th in nation).
Streaks: DU six-game unbeaten. UAA three-game unbeaten.
Goaltending: DU — Sam Brittain (19 GP, 10-4-5, 2.15 GAA, .923 save percentage). UAA — Rob Gunderson (15 GP, 6-7-2, 2.39 GAA, .902 save percentage).
Leading scorer: DU — Drew Shore (14-14–28). UAA — Tommy Grant (10-10–20).
Notes: DU may play both goaltenders, both Brittain and Adam Murray (6 GP, 4-1-0, 3.99 GAA, .856 save percentage). … UAA had both the WCHA offensive player of the week (Grant) and the rookie of the week (Gunderson) this week. … Grant was also named one of USCHO’s Three Stars of the week.
Michigan Tech vs. Minnesota-Duluth
Records: MTU — 3-16-3 (1-12-1 WCHA). UMD — 15-5-3 (10-4-2 WCHA).
Head-to-head: MTU leads the overall series, 118-78-18.
Last meeting: UMD swept back on Nov. 12-13: UMD 5, MTU 3; UMD 4, MTU 2.
PP/PK: MTU 21.1 percent PP (14th in nation), 72.5 percent PK (57th in nation). UMD 22.4 percent PP (6th in nation), 83.6 percent PK (22nd in nation).
Streaks: MTU 18-game winless. UMD one-game losing.
Goaltending: MTU — Josh Robinson (13 GP, 1-8-2, 4.55 GAA, .887 save percentage) or Kevin Genoe (11 GP, 2-8-1, 3.92 GAA, .893 save percentage). UMD — Kenny Reiter (15 GP, 8-3-2, 2.38 GAA, .909 save percentage) or Aaron Crandall (11 GP, 7-2-1, 2.42 GAA, .907 save percentage).
Leading scorer: MTU — Milos Gordic (11-6–17). UMD — Jack Connolly (9-23–32).
North Dakota vs. Nebraska-Omaha
Records: UND — 17-6-2 (12-4-0 WCHA). UNO — 12-8-2 (9-5-2 WCHA).
Head-to-head: The teams are tied, 1-1.
Last meeting: The teams split back on Nov. 19-20: UND 6, UNO 5; UNO 1, UND 0.
PP/PK: UND 21.3 percent PP (t-11th in nation), 86.4 percent PK (t-8th in nation). UNO 20.2 percent PP (18th in nation), 83.3 percent PK (t-24th in nation).
Streaks: UND one-game winning. UNO four-game winless.
Goaltending: UND — Aaron Dell (22 GP, 16-5-1, 1.93 GAA, .922 save percentage). UNO — John Faulkner (22 GP, 12-7-2, 2.47 GAA, .912 save percentage).
Leading scorer: UND — Matt Frattin (20-9–29). UNO — Matt Ambroz (13-11–24).
Notes: UND may also go with Brad Eidsness in net (5 GP, 1-1-1, 4.12 GAA, .805 save percentage). … The series marks UNO coach Dean Blais’ first return to Grand Forks as coach of another college team. He led the North Dakota to two national championships in 10 seasons. … “[C]oming back to Grand Forks as UNO’s coach — trying to take away their points and beat their Fighting Sioux — there’s going to be no love for me up there at all,” he told the Omaha World Herald‘s Chad Purcell this week.
Wisconsin vs. Minnesota State
Records: UW — 15-8-3 (7-7-2 WCHA). MSU — 10-9-5 (4-9-3 WCHA).
Head-to-head: UW leads the overall series, 20-14-4.
Last meeting: UW swept last season on Feb. 12-13: UW 4, MSU 3; UW 8, MSU 4.
PP/PK: UW 25.9 percent PP (3rd in nation), 81 percent PK (37th in nation). MSU 14.4 percent PP (46th in nation), 82.2 percent PK (32nd in nation).
Streaks: UW one-game winning. MSU two-game winless.
Goaltending: UW — Scott Gudmandson (19 GP, 11-6-1, 1.79 GAA, .932 save percentage). MSU — Phil Cook (19 GP, 8-8-3, 3.01 GAA, .908 save percentage).
Leading scorer: UW — Craig Smith (14-19–33). MSU — Kurt Davis (7-12–19).
Colorado College vs. Alabama-Huntsville
Records: CC — 12-11-1 (8-8-0 WCHA). UAH — 3-21-2.
Head-to-head: CC leads the overall series, 3-0.
Last meeting: CC swept back on Oct. 10-11, 2008: CC 1, UAH 0; CC 5, UAH 3.
PP/PK: CC 23.1 percent PP (4th in nation), 84 percent PK (t-18th in nation). UAH 21.3 percent PP (t-11th in nation), 78.7 percent PK (46th in nation).
Streaks: CC three-game losing. UAH two-game losing.
Goaltending: CC — Joe Howe (20 GP, 10-9-1, 2.78 GAA, .905 save percentage). UAH — Clarke Saunders (14 GP, 3-11-0, 3.99 GAA, .886 save percentage).
Leading scorer: CC — Stephen Schultz (12-14–26) and Jaden Schwartz (11-15–26). UAH — Matt Baxter (9-11–20).
Odds and Ends
• The last time you heard from me in this spot, waaaay back on Dec. 9, I talked about Bemidji State, and how it was transitioning to the league. The Beavers had just swept UNO and were 5-8-1 overall.
Since then, they have gone 4-3-1 and are 4-1-1 to start the second half. If that doesn’t look too good, do what the Bemidji Pioneer‘s Eric Stromgren did: Compare BSU’s first 11 games (2-8-1) to their last 11 games (7-3-1). Quite a turnaround, eh? Well, Stromgren figured out the reason why — the last game of that first 11-game chunk was a 4-0 loss to Northern Michigan. The next night, BSU coach Tom Serratore switched up the lines, the Beavers won 3-0 and, well, you get the streak of the second 11-game chunk. Read here for the details.
• Due to Alex Kangas’ season-ending injury, Minnesota announced Wednesday that freshman Alex Fons joined the team as its third goaltender. Fons had been playing in the NAHL and, as far as I know (and can find), is not a future recruit brought in early.