There isn’t much debate among pollsters about Denver being the top men’s Division I hockey team in the country right now, but the Pioneers are not their own finished product.
That’s to be expected only a month into the season, but while DU has yet to lose (4-0-2), not everything has gone perfectly, and not least because The Pioneers are 1-0-2 in series openers.
Denver’s defense has played well in front of goaltenders Tanner Jaillet and Dayton Rasmussen, both of whom have save percentages above .900. Further out from the nets, though, fine-tuning is needed.
“We need to work on our consistency and our puck pressure,” Pioneers coach Jim Montgomery said. “The offensive part of our game isn’t that clean right now, but you usually expect that early in the year.
“You usually get better throughout the year that way and become a more cohesive group offensively, but we’ve been very inconsistent as far as how well we’ve checked other teams, and when we check well, we tend to play very well offensively as well.”
Denver’s early streak of more complete performances in series finales continued last weekend when the Pioneers beat both No. 12 Boston University and Boston College on the road.
A Troy Terry goal with 17 seconds left in Friday’s game at BU gave Denver a 4-3 win before the Pioneers comparatively blew then-No. 19 BC’s doors off, 6-1. It was the Eagles’ worst home loss since falling 7-2 to Notre Dame in a 2014 Hockey East playoff game.
“I thought BU played really well, and when you play a really good college hockey team, there’s going to be momentum swings and it was good for us to be in a game like that that had a lot of swings, just for the growth of our team,” Montgomery said. “There are areas of our team that got exposed, but I thought a good sign of a good team is the ability to get better, and we’ve seen that every week. Fridays haven’t been as good as Saturdays, but it’s early in the year so what we’re looking for is growth and hopefully the consistency will come here very shortly.
“The game plan for Saturday was to be really good on our checking skills, and we thought that if we checked well, we’d create more turnovers which would lead to more puck possession time and possibly more odd-man rushes offensively.”
Denver did much of what it wanted Saturday, going 3-for-6 on the power play and getting two goals each from Henrik Borgstrom and Blake Hillman. Jaillet made 25 saves and helped the Pioneers kill four of BC’s five power plays.
Another tough road test awaits this weekend.
“It’s the first week of NCHC, so the grind begins,” Montgomery said. “We go up against a Western Michigan team that’s extremely well coached and well prepared and very, very good at home (3-1-1 so far).
“We know how hard it is to play in Kalamazoo, and we know we’re going to have our hands full.”
RedHawks play well in sweep of UConn
After conceding 17 goals in its first four games, Miami may have turned a corner last weekend during a home sweep against Connecticut.
The RedHawks put in arguably their two most complete performances of the season against the Huskies. Nineteen saves from netminder Ryan Larkin and goals from three different Miami skaters led to a 3-0 win Friday before five third-period goals Saturday saw the RedHawks dispatch UConn again, 7-1.
“I thought we played well as a team,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. “We focused on the game plan and the process, and I thought the guys executed, for the most part, pretty well and it was nice to see us take that step.
“The team played really well in front of Ryan and were committed to blocking shots and playing hard in front him, but there were also times that, when he had to make saves, he made those saves. In terms of a team mentality and a team defense, I thought it was a good weekend for us.”
Miami now sits at 3-3 ahead of this weekend’s NCHC opener at home against Colorado College. The RedHawks are already a third of the way to matching their win total from last season, but MU hopes for much better returns than their seventh-place finish in 2016-17.
“We thought we needed to continue to build on from where we were a year ago and just try to get guys playing the way they’re capable of and put guys in the right situations,” Blasi said. “I would say we’re still a work-in-progress, but I like the fact that we are taking steps forward.
“If you continue to do that, then that’s ultimately the goal: to get better every day, to get better every week and build on the good stuff and build on your momentum as we go through the season.”
Miami will look to jump above .500 for the first time this season against CC, but that won’t be easy against a Tigers squad that has won five of its first eight games.
“I think CC is a fast, energetic, very skilled up and down (the roster) team that is probably playing as good as anybody in the country right now, so it’s going to be a tough weekend,” Blasi said. “We have to play well, we have to play focused, and as I always say, in our conference, that just allows you to be in the game, so we have to be ready to go.”
Players of the Week
Offensive: David Pope, Omaha. The senior forward compiled five points last week at Notre Dame, including a career-high two goals in the Mavericks’ 6-4 win on Thursday.
Defensive: Louie Belpedio, Miami. Belpedio helped the RedHawks earn their first shutout victory of the year Friday against UConn before bagging two goals and an assist Saturday in a 7-1 win.
Rookie: Grant Mismash, North Dakota. The freshman forward scored two goals in UND’s road split against Colorado College. Mismash finished the weekend with two points and 12 shots on goal, the latter tops among all NCHC forwards.
Goaltender: Hunter Shepard, Minnesota Duluth. Shepard made solid inroads toward becoming the Bulldogs’ No. 1 goaltender by giving up just one goal last weekend in a two-game road sweep against Maine. Shepard finished the series with 52 saves and helped UMD kill all seven of the Black Bears’ power plays.