In some ways, the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and West Regional were a microcosm of the Denver Pioneers’ season.
After struggling in the first half and ending by losing four straight games against North Dakota and St. Cloud State, Denver went on a tear in the second half, making the Frozen Faceoff for the third straight year. There, it faltered again, losing to St. Cloud and then eking out a lackluster 1-1 tie with North Dakota in the third-place game.
2016 Frozen Four
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“We’ve been so hungry since the second half, and I think the first half of the season we took some things for granted,” Denver captain Grant Arnold said. “Since then it’s been, let’s get better every day at practice.”
The game against Ferris State proved a good test of Denver’s strength mentally, as the Pioneers found themselves tied 3-3 late in the third period despite having outplayed Ferris and having substantially outshot them.
“We talked about that, that it would be a hard win and even though we were in control of it, we just thought positively and forged ahead,” said Denver coach Jim Montgomery, who alluded to lessons from last year’s regional final loss to Providence.
“I think it’s something we learned from last year in Providence. I learned as a coach how that five-minute [penalty late in the game] affected me and our team. It affected our bench when we went behind 2-1. We were just talking about the next play.”
About the Pioneers
Coach: Jim Montgomery, third season at Denver and overall
Record: 25-9-6, (17-5-2 NCHC, third)
How they got to the Frozen Four: Defeated Boston University 7-2 and Ferris State 6-3 to win the West Regional
Regional seed: Second
Last Frozen Four appearance: 2005
Best NCAA finish: Champion, 2005, 2004, 1969, 1968, 1961, 1960, 1958
Why they’ll win the national championship: The Pacific Rim Line provides a lot of explosive offense, and the defensive corps is strong and tested. That combo has made Denver one of the hottest teams in the country since January.
Why they won’t win the national championship: While Denver has been hot, the Pioneers have sometimes gotten into defensive battles, and Tanner Jaillet hasn’t been at the level of the other three goalies in the Frozen Four. An offensive outage could be costly.
— Candace Horgan
One of the keys to Denver’s second-half success has been the play of its top line. Junior Trevor Moore, sophomore Danton Heinen and freshman Dylan Gambrell caught fire. The line, dubbed the Pacific Rim Line because of their West Coast roots, came up big in the West Regional, factoring on four goals with five points in the game against BU and four goals with seven points against Ferris.
That followed a disappointing performance in the conference tournament in Minneapolis where the line was held to a single assist in a 4-2 loss to St. Cloud State and then a goal with assists against North Dakota.
“I don’t really know what happened in Minneapolis; it just didn’t really happen for us,” said Moore. “We came into this past weekend saying we’ve got to do it. We can’t have a weekend like that this weekend and move on, so we kind of put it on ourselves to really try to outcompete the other teams we played against, and it worked out.”
In the Frozen Four, Denver will face a familiar opponent in North Dakota. The two have gone 2-2-1 against each other this season.
“It’s a fitting Frozen Four — North Dakota-Denver,” Arnold said. “I’ve experienced this rivalry at its highest high, and now I’ll have experienced it at its highest high after this game.
“It’s awesome. It’s a great, great rivalry, and it’s the rubber match for us. In that game, I think you will see everything that Division I hockey is: speed, great coaching, physicality, great goaltending, everything.”
One key for Denver will be its ability to contain the CBS Line of North Dakota’s Brock Boeser, Drake Caggiula and Nick Schmaltz.
“They can make great plays and score a lot of goals in a little amount of time and a little amount of space, so just be aware when they are on the ice is the key thing you can do against them, to take away their time and space as a group,” said Denver senior defenseman Nolan Zajac. “It’s not just going to be one guy; it’s got to be all five guys on the ice. So I think if we stick with that, we’ll be fine.”
Added Montgomery: “You have to make sure that you don’t give them second-chance opportunities by trying to pass through them or turning pucks over. I’d like to match our line right up against them. I think it’d be great for college hockey to see the two of them go head to head.”