At the close of the first half, No. 14 Denver was in a rut. The Pioneers had lost four straight games in series against the NCHC’s top teams, North Dakota and St. Cloud State. None of the games was close.
In addition to having fallen to sixth in the NCHC standings, the Pioneers were well outside the top 16 in the PairWise Rankings after a second straight 6-2 loss to St. Cloud. After that game, Denver coach Jim Montgomery talked about getting back to the basics of the team’s identity.
So far, so good in the second half. Denver started its second-half campaign with a pair of ties against No. 16 Notre Dame. The second of those ties could have been a blow to the Pioneers’ psyche, as they gave up the tying goal in the last 30 seconds of regulation.
Instead, they used that series as a confidence boost and went to Omaha last weekend and swept the No. 6 Mavericks. Those were the first losses Omaha suffered in its new Baxter Arena.
Denver moved up to fourth in the NCHC, on track for home ice in the first round of the NCHC playoffs, and, more importantly, is 14th in the PairWise.
“I think the Notre Dame series gave us a lot of confidence that if our preparation, focus and intensity are really good, it’s going to give us a lot of puck possession time and a lot of opportunities and success on the weekend,” said Montgomery. “We talked about if we play the way we did against Notre Dame, 80-85 percent of time, we are going to win games. I think we had a really good week of practice going into UNO and I thought our five-on-five play was really good against UNO.”
Reminded of what he’d said after the St. Cloud series, Montgomery started by pointing the finger at himself and how he was not getting his team properly prepared.
“Yeah, that’s what we saw when we analyzed it over break, and like I said, it started with me,” he said. “I got away from details and the number of repetitions, I shortened up practices, and it wasn’t the right time of the season to shorten up practice. Our team identity slipped because we weren’t getting enough reps on puck possession, how we possess pucks and our puck pressure.”
One change that Montgomery made for the second half was ending the goaltending platoon and instead naming sophomore Tanner Jaillet as the starter. Jaillet has responded well. Against Omaha, he made 35 saves on Friday and another 25 on Saturday.
“It’s four games in a row where he’s making every save he’s expected to make, and now he’s making saves that are getting the whole bench up and cheering, the saves that win games,” Montgomery said. “He did that numerous times over the weekend at UNO.”
The Pioneers are led in scoring by freshman Dylan Gambrell, who had a big weekend against Omaha, scoring the game-winner Saturday and chipping in three assists.
“I think Dylan’s confidence is really peaking right now,” said Montgomery. “You can sense it with the way he practices every day that he wants the puck and he expects to make plays, and that’s what he’s doing for us.”
One potential source of upside for Denver would be increased production from junior Trevor Moore and sophomore Danton Heinen, both of whom have been down in points per game from last season. Montgomery said he’s seen improved play from the two so far in the second half.
“We need those guys, and in the last two weeks, they’ve created more scoring chances in the last four games than I think they did in the entire first half,” he said. “When your most talented players are your hardest workers and are creating scoring chances, it’s going to lead to more offense.”
Denver hosts Western Michigan this weekend, a series Montgomery expects will be a stiff challenge for his team.
“Every time we’ve played Western, we split with them, at home last year, and we split with them two years ago at their rink,” Montgomery said. “We know how well-coached they are and how disciplined a team they can be and that they’re not going to give you anything. You have to go out and earn it.”
Colorado College impressive in upset of No. 4 St. Cloud State
A quick glance at the NCHC standings shows a surprising stat: Colorado College, which didn’t win a game until the last Saturday in November, losing its first 13, is one point away from moving out of the NCHC basement into seventh place.
Last weekend, the Tigers traveled to St. Cloud to face the Huskies’ high-powered offense. CC shut the Huskies down, holding them to two goals in each game while scoring an upset 5-2 win on Saturday.
Part of that was due to the play of goaltender Jacob Nehama, who made 34 saves in a 2-1 loss Friday and followed that with 47 saves in Saturday’s win.
“I thought he was outstanding in both games,” CC coach Mike Haviland said of Nehama. “Friday night, he gave us a chance to win and we came pretty close. And then Saturday again, same kind of performance. It was nice to see his consistency back to back. He was outstanding. He made some spectacular saves against a very high-powered offense.”
The response of the Tigers in Friday’s contest was the key to Saturday’s win, according to Haviland. After giving up two early goals and ending the first period down 2-0, CC got a goal early in the second and Nehama kept CC in it.
“We had it kind of rough in the first 10 minutes,” said Haviland. “We hadn’t played in a while and they had played a couple of games, but I think we got better as the first period went on after we were down 2-0. Jacob made some saves that kept it at 2-0 and then all of a sudden we got a goal off the power play real quick in the second period and make it 2-1 and all of a sudden we start to believe.
“I thought we played pretty good the last 40 minutes of the game the first night and just fell short, but it gave us the confidence coming in. And then we get the first goal Saturday night and it’s all of a sudden the guys get the confidence they had from Friday and it snowballed from there.”
In addition to the play of Nehama, another key to CC’s performance this weekend was its improved special teams play. CC held St. Cloud State to one power-play goal in nine tries and got a power-play goal of its own in each game.
“I think guys are understanding their roles of both sides of it, the power play and penalty kill, and are taking pride in it now,” said Haviland. “We haven’t changed much up with personnel, so guys are getting used to each other. I think it’s the attention to the detail on both special teams that guys are starting to understand where they fit in and what their roles are. We’re going to need that. We need to win special teams wars each weekend, and it’s tough in our conference because everybody has pretty good special teams.”
In December, after a sweep of Miami, Haviland talked about his squad’s identity, and how the Tigers were going to have win games 2-1 or 3-2, and weren’t going win games 5-4. It’s ironic then that CC’s win over St. Cloud was 5-2.
“I look at it and even go back to the weekend at Alabama where we gave up only four goals on the weekend, and then four goals last weekend. I think it’s more the defensive side of it is the identity of the team,” said Haviland. “Yes, it’s ironic that we then score five and down in Alabama we scored five, but the identity is that we have to make it hard for teams on the second or third opportunities. That’s something we’ve learned: We can’t give up second and third opportunities.”
CC is off this weekend, then takes on the NCHC’s other top team the following weekend, traveling to Grand Forks to face North Dakota. Haviland said his team can draw on its preparation for St. Cloud to have success in North Dakota.
“I think the good thing is we had that break after the holidays and we came back and we had almost the same amount of days leading up to St. Cloud, so we are going to duplicate what we did in that time frame: a lot of teaching and a lot of game-simulated drills from scrimmages,” he said. “You can’t burn them out too much, because we need our legs coming into North Dakota, obviously a real tough place to play.”
NCHC players of the week
Offensive player of the week — Danton Heinen, Denver: Heinen posted three points on the weekend in helping lead Denver to an impressive weekend sweep of Omaha. On Friday, he assisted on Denver’s second goal in a 3-0 win while posting a plus-1 rating. On Saturday, he scored Denver’s third goal to put the Pioneers up 3-0, then assisted on the game-winning, power-play goal in the third period of a 4-3 win and was named the game’s third star.
Defensive player of the week — Will Butcher, Denver: Butcher helped anchor a Denver penalty kill that went 10-for-11 in its weekend series against Omaha and contributed offensively with two goals on Friday in a 3-0 shutout win, Butcher’s first collegiate multi-goal game. He scored the first goal early in the first period, and followed it up with a goal in the second while being named the game’s second star with a plus-2 rating. On Saturday, he was again plus-2.
Rookie of the week — Dylan Gambrell, Denver: Gambrell was named NCHC rookie of the week for the second straight week for his role in Denver’s sweep of Omaha. On Friday, he assisted on Denver’s second goal while posting a plus-1 rating. On Saturday, he had a goal and two assists, scoring the game-winner on a power play in the third period and assisted on Denver’s first and third goals in the 4-3 win. He also won nine of 18 faceoffs on the weekend.
Goaltender of the week — Jacob Nehama, Colorado College: Nehama posted a .953 save percentage and 2.02 GAA on the weekend against St. Cloud State, stopping 81 of 85 shots in a split with the Huskies. On Friday, he gave up two goals in the first period in a 2-1 loss while making 34 saves. Saturday, he stopped 47 shots in a 5-2 win while being named the game’s first star. He helped the penalty kill go 8-for-9 on the weekend, stopping 17 of 18 shots on the St. Cloud power play.