Coming into this season, the Denver Pioneers were, for the first time in a long time, an unknown quantity. In part, that was due to the departure of coach George Gwozdecky after a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament. It was also due to the early departures of Nick Shore, Scott Mayfield and Juho Olkinuora for the pros.
It didn’t help, either, that the Pioneers looked decidedly underwhelming in a 2-1 preseason loss to New Brunswick.
However, for first-year coach Jim Montgomery, the first weekend of regular season play could not have gone any better. The Pioneers swept Merrimack 1-0 and 4-0, but Montgomery indicated he wasn’t quite satisfied overall.
“I guess it’s as good a start as you could possibly write,” Montgomery said. “Our senior goaltender, Sam Brittain, was unbelievable, NCHC goaltender of the week. You like to build a team from the net out, and our ‘D’ corps was special last weekend, and they need to keep that up. What was really impressive was how hard we played every minute of the game, even when we were ahead 3-0.”
That defensive corps was a big reason the Pioneers were so effective. In Saturday’s 4-0 win, junior Joey LaLeggia opened the scoring in the first period, and his co-defensemen, freshman Will Butcher and David Makowski, added goals in the second to make it 3-0.
“There were definitely some changes in systems from George, but systems aside, Sam Brittain is the best goalie in the nation,” LaLeggia said. “When you have so much confidence in your goalie like we do, it makes everybody play better as a whole defensively. Sam is very vocal, and he really helps us back there.”
LaLeggia said that knowing Brittain is back there should the defense make a mistake gives the team more confidence to jump into the offense.
Such a scenario played out in the first period last Saturday. With Denver on a five-on-three power play, LaLeggia sent a pass to David Makowski at the right point that got lost in Makowski’s skates, and Merrimack went the other way on a three-on-one.
After Brittain made the save, Denver went the other way three-on-one, and Ty Loney sent a pass to a wide-open LaLeggia in the slot for a goal.
“More than half of us would say we are offensive defensemen, and knowing Sammy is back there is great for that comfort level as well, and helps us play our game,” LaLeggia said. “[On that play], that was actually my fault. I put a pass in David Makowski’s feet and they went down, and luckily Sam was there to make the save and we got to go back the other way and score.”
“Joey is an outstanding offensive defenseman, and the part that I really like is his commitment to get better defensively,” Montgomery said. “He can eat people up defensively with his feet and stick, and that’s what we have been working on, and I think we saw a little bit of that last weekend.”
LaLeggia finished third on the team in scoring in 2012-13 and was expected to be a big part of the scoring this year. Another big part of that defense, Nolan Zajac, scored the game-winner Friday and added an assist Saturday. It was all the more impressive because with an injury to Zac Larraza, Zajac was moved to forward last week.
“Nolan, you can describe him as a hockey player,” Montgomery said. “His instincts offensively and defensively naturally are very good, so he makes great decisions. He’s really good at protecting the puck down low in the offensive zone, which is not common for defensemen, and he makes plays.”
Several of Zajac’s teammates and his coach teased him about his transition up front, saying that he was a natural and would never go back.
For his part, Zajac said he feels that his play defensively helps him at forward.
“It was a big change, coming into the dressing room and seeing that blue jersey, that forward jersey, in my stall,” Zajac said. “I think I did pretty well up there. It’s an adjustment, a lot more skating.
“Playing defense is pretty easy; you just sit back there and play ‘D.’ I think having my defensive side to me really helps. I can help out the d-men as well, because I know what they are thinking and what they want to do, how they want to break out, so that will be the best asset to my game at forward.”
One thing that hasn’t changed after the first week is the captain situation. In a preseason news conference, Montgomery indicated he probably wouldn’t make selections for a captain or captains until after the Alaska trip this weekend. However, he acknowledged after last weekend that he has some people in mind.
“As a staff, we talked about it this morning actually, and we have narrowed it down to six players that we think are in the mix,” Montgomery said. “We still haven’t faced adversity. We haven’t been behind. I haven’t seen things really go against us, bounces or maybe refs giving us a slew of penalties, so I haven’t seen who can respond on the bench and in the dressing room as a true leader, but I think we have a lot of potential leaders.”
I got some grief from Western Michigan fans (as did my co-columnist Matthew Semisch) for picking the Broncos last in the conference in our season preview. My main reason for doing so was that the Broncos didn’t score a lot last year, finishing 51st in the country in scoring offense, and they lost two of their top five scorers to graduation, plus one of their top-scoring defensemen.
As much as I felt that Western Michigan would have difficulty scoring, I don’t think anybody anticipated the Broncos would be shut out in their first two games against Notre Dame.
On Friday at Notre Dame, the Broncos went 0-for-7 on the power play while registering only 22 shots to Notre Dame’s 32. It was worse at home on Saturday, as they were outshot 41-22 while going 0-for-4 on the power play and giving up two third-period goals, one of which was an empty-netter.
Goalie Frank Slubowski was a bright spot for Western Michigan, posting a .930 save percentage in the two games.
One area that could help Western Michigan is cutting down on penalties. The Broncos took nine penalties in each game. In his postgame news conference Saturday, coach Andy Murray singled this out as an area that affected his team.
“The other 18 skaters are going to be a lot better than they were this weekend,” Murray told reporters. “I like our room for improvement, because we’ve got a lot of room. We didn’t play as well as we needed to. One of the reasons we were chasing this hockey game all night was because we took too many unnecessary penalties. You can’t do that against a very good team like Notre Dame because you can’t generate your offense. I like the growth potential within this team.”
Somewhat ironically, Western Michigan is participating in the Alaska Goal Rush this weekend with Denver, its NCHC counterpart that is coming off an opening weekend shutout sweep of Merrimack.
NCHC action begins
Last week’s games were all out of conference. Conference play begins this weekend, as Colorado College hosts Minnesota-Duluth and preseason favorite and current No. 1 Miami hosts No. 6 North Dakota.
“It’s going to be a crazy week with North Dakota coming to town for our first league games in the new conference,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said at his weekly news conference. I know everyone is excited, and we have some work to do during the week. …
“For us right now, we have to make sure we know what North Dakota can bring. … We’re going to focus on what we can do and our strengths and how we need to get better as a team this week. We respect North Dakota and what they’re able to do and the type of team that they have, but we have to focus on our game.”
NCHC players of the week
Offensive player of the week: Riley Barber, Miami. Barber totaled seven points in a weekend series against former CCHA rival Ohio State, scoring four goals and three assists. All four goals were scored in Saturday’s 6-3 win, as was one of the assists.
Defensive player of the week: Kevin Gravel, St. Cloud State. Gravel assisted on a short-handed tally in St. Cloud’s 3-2 win over Bemidji State on Friday while finishing plus-1, and also scored a goal and finished plus-1 in Saturday’s 2-2 tie.
Rookie of the week: Trevor Hamilton, Miami. Hamilton had three assists in the weekend series against Ohio State, including an assist on the game-winning tally in Friday’s game. A defenseman, he finished plus-4 on the weekend.
Goalie of the week: Sam Brittain, Denver. Brittain stopped 53 shots in a weekend shutout sweep of Merrimack. It was the first time in the 65-year history of Denver hockey that the team opened with a pair of shutouts. Brittain doubled his career shutout total while notching the first back-to-back shutouts at DU since 2009.