This Week in the NCHC: Denver, St. Cloud State readying for key series between highly-ranked teams

Tanner Jaillet (Denver-36) 16 November 11 Denver University and University of North Dakota meet in a NCHC conference contest at Ralph Engelstad Arena (Bradley K. Olson)
Reigning Mike Richter Award winner Tanner Jaillet has been solid in the Denver crease this season (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

Near the middle of January, defending national champion Denver was in a rut, having gone 2-3-2.

Pioneers coach Jim Montgomery called out his players for their lackluster performance.

Since then, Denver has gone 6-1-2, with the lone loss coming last Saturday, thanks to a 40-save effort from Colorado College goalie Alex Leclerc.

Even now, however, Montgomery doesn’t think his team is quite where it needs to be if it wants to duplicate the feat of past Denver teams in winning back-to-back national championships.

“We have areas we have to get better at,” said Montgomery. “Like Saturday night, I just didn’t think we were offensively tough enough, and that’s what these opportunities are down the stretch going into St. Cloud. We’re going to see an area that we need to be better at again. You know, the power play is the one concerning area right now that has to give us momentum. Teams aren’t taking as many penalties now as they were in the first half, and our power play has to be good on three opportunities. They’re not getting five or six opportunities anymore, and they’ve got to give us momentum in those opportunities that we do get.”

One thing that has helped Denver in its recent stretch is improved defensive play.

In the first half, and during its 2-3-2 stretch, Denver often gave up three or more goals. There were several games in the first half where Denver was unable to hold a three-goal lead. In addition to a recent focus on team defense, last year’s Mike Richter Award winner, Tanner Jaillet, has been stellar, and it’s one reason that Denver is now third nationally in team defense, giving up only 2.07 goals per game.

“I think Tanner’s playing the best hockey of his entire college career here for the past really two months,” said Montgomery. “Yeah, we really struggled there as a team for a while, and I think his numbers got hurt because of so many great chances we were giving up there for a while. I don’t think at any point in this season was Tanner ever not really good for us, but now that we do play consistently good defense, you see him making the big saves when he needs to and occasionally carrying us for a period when he needs to, and he’s just been just consistently remarkable for us.”

While Denver’s power play has been moribund of late, part of that might be to missing a key player.

Troy Terry missed the CC series playing for Team USA at the Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Monday night, Terry had three assists in a key game against Slovakia. While the U.S. was eliminated in a shootout by the Czech Republic Tuesday night, it is unclear if Terry will play this weekend.

According to DU, it will be a game-time decision both nights whether he plays.

“I know the entire staff watched last night, and we were just filled with pride because of how well he played,” Montgomery said Tuesday of the Slovakia game. “I thought he was USA’s best player, but definitely his line was remarkable with (Ryan) Donato and (Mark) Arcobello, and it’s just fun to watch him. We’ve become accustomed to him playing great in big moments, and it’s nice to see him doing it again.”

This weekend, Denver has a key series against St. Cloud State, with the Penrose Cup, awarded to the league’s regular-season champion, possibly on the line. Denver won the Penrose Cup last year, and currently trails St. Cloud by five points. Denver convincingly swept the Huskies in November in Denver, but Montgomery is expecting a fierce battle.

“What I’m expecting is I think it’s going be great college hockey,” said Montgomery. “And I think it’s a wonderful opportunity and challenge for our group. I think St. Cloud has been the best team consistently in our conference throughout the year, and that’s why they’re sitting in first place right now. You know what do we have to do to have success? Well, our power play has to be better, we need to stay out of the box, and our rush defense and defensive zone play has to be at the best we’ve had it all year.”

St. Cloud seeks second Penrose Cup

With two weekends to go in the NCHC regular season, St. Cloud State is coming off a big weekend that saw the team have to rally in both games to earn a tie/three-on-three OT win and win against Western Michigan on the road.

“That was a sign of two pretty high-scoring teams that kind of got after it, and we were very fortunate to win, and maybe shouldn’t have won, but for parts of the game, we had no business losing,” said St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko. “It was one of those games that if it had gone either way, I accept it. We were fortunate to tie it with the goalie pulled, and I think every season the team’s got to come up with one of those, and that seems to be the game for us. It came down to one opportunity. We let a couple things slide in the game, but we tie it up and we were able to get the extra point in the three-on-three, so very up and down game, back and forth. We just made two plays at critical moments in that one. The next night, I think we did a much better job of settling the game down and letting us really establish ourselves.”

Jack Ahcan (SCSU-12) 2018 Feb. 02 St. Cloud State University hosts University of Nebraska Omaha in a NCHC contest at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, MN (Bradley K. Olson)
Jack Ahcan has compiled 16 points in 30 games this season from the SCSU blue line (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

Against Western, Motzko again split his goalie duties, with Jeff Smith playing Friday and Dávid Hrenák Saturday. To date this season, Hrenák has played 14 games and Smith, 18. The two have nearly identical winning percentages, while Hrenák has a slightly better GAA (1.80 to 2.62) and save percentage (.933 to .910). Motzko is happy to have two goaltenders he can rely on, and for now, will probably continue to platoon them.

“It’s a crazy situation where we’re in a great spot as a team where we sit, and when I look down in conference play, one guy is 7-2, the other is 7-2-2, and both guys have been responsible for us being in the position that we’re at,” said Motzko. “You know, we haven’t been quite as strong in goaltending in the second half as we were the first half, but I think that we’re getting back to it. January was a little bit of a slide for us, a slide sideways maybe, and February’s been a much better month. I don’t have an answer for it outside of both guys from a winning standpoint are dead even, and that’s a good position to be in. We’re going to let this thing play out here for a couple more weeks.”

This weekend, St. Cloud will play Denver at home. The Huskies currently have a five-point lead on Denver in the NCHC race for the Penrose Cup. Like Denver, St. Cloud has been missing one of its key players, defenseman Will Borgen, to Team USA at the Olympics. However, Borgen didn’t get a chance to play, which Motzko acknowledges is disappointing.

With the U.S. eliminated, it is possible that Borgen will be able to play in this weekend’s series with Denver.

“It’s been very disappointing that he hasn’t gotten in there for us,” said Motzko. “Will was playing the best hockey of his career for us right before he left. And he is such a critical part of our team. I know this overall will be a great experience for him, but I know he’s greatly disappointed that he hasn’t gotten in there. But you know I’m not there, I don’t know the situation. I just know we can’t wait to get him back and get him back in our lineup.”

When St. Cloud played Denver earlier in the year, the team lost both games convincingly, 4-2 and 5-1. Motzko believes this weekend will be a tough test. Told of Denver coach Jim Montgomery’s comments about St. Cloud being the most consistent team this season, Motzko turned it right back around.

“Well, you know if he thinks we’re the most consistent, I think they’re the best team in the country, and they proved that to us early in the year,” said Motzko. “College hockey really is a series of playoffs every weekend. It’s like a mini little playoff series, and we really just fight week to week, and it’s kind of been our mentality especially coming out of our January where we’ve just put an emphasis on how we prepare that week for that week’s games. I know we are very aware of where the situation is from that standpoint, but our talk to our team yesterday once again was this week preparing for Denver. They were outstanding when we played there early in the year. We want to see if we closed the gap. We want to be up for this series and this series alone. That’s kind of what’s got us there.

“We’re going to stick with that right now. We’re just fighting week to week in all these little mini playoff series.”

NCHC players of the week

Offensive player of the week ⸺ Dawson DiPietro, Western Michigan: DiPietro notched four points in two close losses to St. Cloud State. Friday, he had three points, including two assists that gave the Broncos a one-point lead. He also scored a goal with 2:25 left in the game that put Western up by one before St. Cloud tied it for a 5-5 tie. Saturday, he scored Western’s second goal in the second period, putting the Broncos up by one. He now leads Western Michigan in points with 33.

Defensive player of the week ⸺ Mike Ilvonen, St. Cloud State: Ilvonen was a key contributor in St. Cloud’s sweep of Western Michigan. Friday, he had his first career multi-goal game, scoring twice, including the goal with 49 seconds left in the game that tied it for St. Cloud with an extra attacker with the goalie pulled. He finished plus-2 and was named the game’s first star. Saturday, he helped kill both Western Michigan power plays.

Rookie of the week ⸺ Easton Brodzinski, St. Cloud State: Brodzinski had three points in St. Cloud’s sweep of Western Michigan. Friday, he had two points, scoring on a power play to tie it 2-2 in an eventual 5-5 tie. Saturday, he again scored on a power play, scoring the game’s first goal in St. Cloud’s eventual 4-2 win. He is currently fourth in scoring among NCHC freshmen with 19 points and leads NCHC freshmen in goals with 12.

Goaltender of the week ⸺ Hunter Shepard, Minnesota Duluth: In the Bulldogs’ sweep of Miami, Shepard pitched two shutouts. Friday, he made 16 saves, including three on Miami’s power plays, and earned the game’s second star. Saturday, he made 34 saves, including 14 in the second period, en route to a 3-0 win and earned the game’s first star. He made 50 saves on the weekend with a 1.000 save percentage and 0.00 GAA. He became the first Minnesota Duluth goalie to post back-to-back shutouts in a home series. .

88 COMMENTS

  1. Ironically, St Cloud was also ranked #1 in November and they were pretty handily swept by Denver. What’s the word on Borgen and Terry in this series? Are they stuck in Korea until the closing ceremonies or can they leave early because Team USA was eliminated? Also, since Borgen never played there, I would imagine there’s a better chance he suits up than Terry given the fact that he should be rested.

    • It’s in the article, but yesterday I confirmed with the Denver SID that Terry will be a game-time decision both nights. I’d imagine Borgen is the same. Jordan Greenway will likely play for BU as well.

          • I think that you have indicated a reason why you think he was a healthy scratch with something credible, but there could be reasons that he didn’t see the ice that we simply do not know of too. Often times what happens in the locker room, stays in the locker room.

          • I agree except if there was a disciplinary reason don’t you think he would have been sent home. If it was bad enough to keep Borgen from playing every game, it would have been a whopper. One game, even two, I could easily buy into your good point but this was the entire tournament. Truthfully, we will probably never know the exact reason but we do know he never suited up.

          • I will just add that while the conjecture that he “wasn’t good enough” is probably accurate in the minds of the coaches, having covered hockey and also having been close to players for decades and seeing how things play out, politics comes into play more often than you would possibly believe. Players get cut or sat who are “good enough” who for some reason the coach decides they just don’t like. I’ve seen it take a toll on players’ confidence, and in some cases lead to them becoming completely disillusioned with the game and even quitting.

            We’ll never know why Borgen didn’t play. Maybe Granato decided he just didn’t like Borgen for some reason, the same way that Robb Stauber decided to cut Alex Carpenter and Megan Bozek from the women’s team. Looking at the roster, there are only two players that immediately jump out at me as defensemen I’d consider “better” than Borgen: Gilroy and Gunderson.

          • Very logical thinking, you very well could be correct. In your experience, isn’t the decision on those that dress normally a consensus of all the coaches, not just the head coach? I know Gwozdecky “sat” players for disciplinary reasons but hinted they “tweaked” something in practice. I was not demeaning Borgen, just stating the fact he was a healthy scratch, in reply to LPH questioning why he did not play. Of course, I knew he would not take the truth well and even questioned how I knew. When I proved it to him, he went off the rails. Any player that makes the Olympic team, is definitely an excellent player. They also took two reserves, another kudo for Borgen making the original squad.

          • Nope. I will maintain to the day I die that the team won in spite of Stauber, not because of him. Most of his coaching decisions came close to losing that game. The U.S. was outplayed badly for the first two periods and part of the third. A defensive brain fart breakdown by Team Canada that led to the MLam goal was the only thing that had the U.S. playing like it could. The U.S. did dominate the OT, but even Stauber’s choices for the shootout were head-scratchers.

            Of course, USA Hockey has a history of this with the women’s team. Who can forget Ben Smith cutting Cammi Granato, which led to the U.S. having its worst Olympic finish?

            As for the men, sometimes coaches make decisions based on input from the assistants, sometimes not. I’m not close enough to the men’s team to have any insight on what happened. I think yes, to a certain extent, the coaches decided he wasn’t “good enough” because he was a healthy scratch, but I think more could have played into it. Maybe Granato decided he wanted a more physical defenseman? Who knows.

          • I think there are always players, women or men, that you can deserve to play. You would know much more about the women, and I do agree on the shootout choices. I would have had both Lamouroux sisters involved in the initial shootout five.

            You might have come up with a brilliant reason for Borgen being a “healthy” scratch with even realizing it. Your last sentence could very well be on target. When you look at the size of every team we played in the Olympics, the difference was striking. The USA opponents were huge, more experienced, stronger, and more mature. I thought we played very well considering all these factors. The best part was that nobody got hurt, a real bonus.

          • Oh gods, yes, I totally would have had both Lamoureux sisters in the initial five. I’ve been ripping Stauber on Twitter, and also USA Hockey, which I still think resents that it was shown up by a bunch of girls last April when they went on boycott ahead of the Worlds, and then every woman’s player USA Hockey reached out to try to field a team and break the strike said no. That included top D-III players and high school players.

            Anyway, this person said that saving JLam for the sixth slot was brilliant because she was a dagger, nevermind that if she’d been in the first five we may not even have had to go with a sixth. The “logic” of that train of thought completely escapes me.

          • Just posted! Had to think them through so I can ensure I get my six pack from Matthew for winning the picks race :)

          • You both have a lot of moxie picking a split. Can’t see DU winning a game without Terry at 100%. You know he is battered and tired, though young enough to be resilient. If he is not totally healthy, Montgomery won’t play him. You know Terry will “lobby” to play, reason must win out, better to save him for later.

          • Denver still has Borgstrom, Gambrell, Lukosevicius, Finlay, and Mitchell, so a split seems likely. Also, I think Monty is right that Jaillet is playing the best goaltending of his career. Terry has been very up and down this year anyway. Also, it’s possible DU could have Tyson McLellan back soon.

          • Well, the gamesmanship went both ways. I quoted Monty above saying SCSU has been the most consistent team in the conference and the country. I also don’t really think there’s much of a gap. It’s reminding me of last year between Duluth and Denver.

          • Odds that Bobby and Monty exchange some words after the game again?

            Or the odds for what color sweater Bob is wearing…..

          • Terry is key to our power play. Without him, Borgstrom has to play between Gambrell and Lukosevicius, not control things from the point. Also, Finlay playing on the Gambrell/Lukosevicius line hurts his chemistry when skating with Borgstrom. We shall see, I always hope for the best.

          • I like your enthusiasm for the Sioux to sweep…..buuuuuuuuuuut, have you seen our Friday games? I know you mentioned it, but picking them to lose on Friday would probably be the way to go…..although that would kill pairwise and probably give me a heart attack…..

          • I don’t have confidence in the RedHawks right now, and I keep expecting North Dakota to establish more consistency. Cam Johnson’s play last Saturday was a huge step in that direction.

          • Hate to say I told ya so on our ridiculously bad Friday nights. Chalk another one up in the absolutely bad category.

          • Yep, although Denver had a few times it lost three-goal leads earlier in the year. Still, not the time for that to be happening.

          • Your ‘logic’ is laughable. You contradict yourself and don’t realize it but I am sure you will deflect and schadenfreude.

      • He didn’t play because he simply wasn’t good enough, thus the term “healthy scratch”. Even you can figure that out. Don’t blame Granato, it was consensus from all the coaches.

  2. “Hrenák has a slightly better GAA (1.80 to 2.62) and save percentage (.933 to .910)”

    Slightly is being generous. Hrenak has clearly been better. Continuing to play Smith is not giving the team the best chance to win. Bob should start Hrenak both games this weekend and only play Smith once we have clinched the Penrose or in the 3rd place game at the Frozen Faceoff.

    • Ya I agree, I think Hrenak has been better. But he’s also been playing the Sat games mostly, and the team has been generally playing better team defense on Sat than on Fridays.

      • Agree. Friday nights have tended to be turnover filled nightmares. You don’t have to look any further back than last weekend against Western. That being said I do feel more comfortable with Hrenak between the pipes right now.

  3. See y’all at Herb Brooks National Hockey Center this weekend. Well, Friday for sure. Gol darn snow may prevent Saturday travels.

    And just cuz:
    “Denver will NOT sweep!”

  4. Going to be a great series. I can see a split. I do not accept that the games in Denver earlier were handily won by the Pioneers. Yes Saturday’s game was an ol’ fashion butt kicking but the Huskies deserved better in the Friday game. They outshot Denver in that game and were just unable to convert just 1 of 6 power play opportunities. An empty net goal in the final seconds accounted for the final 4-2 score.

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