Talented group of forwards puts Denver at head of pack

Denver garnered the top spot in this season’s WCHA coaches poll, and though honored by the confidence of his colleagues, Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky knows it will take much more than that to earn a March trip to St. Paul.

“It’s nice to be recognized but, in some ways, I think we coaches like to put the monkey on someone’s back every year,” said Gwozdecky. “Last year it was our friends in Grand Forks and this year they’ve given us that weight, that burden, and that privilege.”

Gwozdecky said he is comfortable with the expectations that come with the honor.

“I think when you’ve been in this league as long as we have, as long as I have at least, you’re going to have those years where you feel you’ve got a good team and you’re going to have those years where you feel there’s a lot of question marks and a lot of unknowns,” said Gwozdecky. “I think this year we have one of those teams where I think we all feel that with the experience coming back and the depth that we have we should be a good team.”

Denver’s depth is especially evident up front, as junior Drew Shore leads a talented quintet of forwards consisting of 2010-11 WCHA rookie of the year Jason Zucker, sophomore Nick Shore, sophomore Beau Bennett, and senior Luke Salazar, which combined for 78 goals and 129 points last season.

“Those five guys are going to be key for us to be able to continue to have success,” said Gwozdecky. “All five of them had very good offseasons, they’re healthy, they’re stronger, they’re more explosive, and I think they’re going to be factors for us offensively.”

Defensively, the Pioneers must forge ahead without offensive threat Matt Donovan, who took his 32 points (9-23–32) with him to Long Island when he left last spring following his sophomore season to sign a pro contract with the New York Islanders.

Gwozdecky, however, expects key minutes out of seniors John Lee and John Ryder along with sophomores Paul Phillips and David Makowski, who likely will be asked to fill the offensive void created by Donovan’s departure.

“[Makowski is] a guy that can put up numbers for us (6-24–30 in 2010-11) and I think right now he’s the guy that I look at as maybe being able to step into Matt Donovan’s shoes,” said Gwozdecky.

What was supposed to be a position of strength for the Pioneers became a question mark in June with the revelation that sophomore starting goaltender Sam Brittain would undergo major knee surgery to repair an ACL tear suffered during the Final Five. Brittain, whose 19-9-5 record, 2.28 goals against average, and .921 save percentage earned him WCHA all-rookie honors, continued to play despite the injury until the Pioneers were eliminated by North Dakota in the NCAA Midwest Regional final.

If junior Adam Murray can provide the Pioneers with steady play in goal until Brittain is ready to return sometime in January, Denver will be in position to prove Gwozdecky’s peers to be prophetic.

“Proving that is going to be a huge, huge undertaking considering the kind of league we have and the kind of opposition that we’re going to face every night,” said Gwozdecky. “There are many teams that could win this league title besides us this year.

“It’s going to be another year, I’m convinced, that it’s going to go right down to the wire. It’s going to be one heck of a race and it’s going to be great for the fans to be able to follow it.”

About the Pioneers

2010-11 overall record: 25-12-5

2010-11 WCHA record: 17-8-3 (second)

2011-12 predicted finish (coaches poll): First

Key losses: F Kyle Ostrow, D Matt Donovan, F Anthony Maiani

Players to watch: F Jason Zucker, F Drew Shore, F Luke Salazar, F Beau Bennett, D David Makowski

Impact rookie: D Scott Mayfield

Why the Pioneers will finish higher than the coaches poll: They can’t, but they’ll stay there if Murray mans the fort well enough until Brittain’s return.

Why the Pioneers will finish lower than the coaches poll: Inability to stay healthy and goaltending concerns.