USCHO.com GAME OF THE WEEK: No. 3 Denver focusing on Colorado College, Gold Pan this weekend

Alex Leclerc of Colorado College and Jarid Lukosevicius of Denver. Colorado College at Denver at Magness Arena, Feb. 17, 2018. (Candace Horgan)
Colorado College goalie Alex Leclerc and Denver forward Jarid Lukosevicius battle for the Gold Pan during an NCHC game at Magness Arena on Feb. 17, 2018 (photo: Candace Horgan).

As the second half of the season progresses, defenses usually clamp down, and games get tighter.

The ability to win close games, and to find a way to win, can set a team up for success in the playoffs.

Last season, for instance, Minnesota Duluth won all four of its games in the NCAA tournament by one goal.

The No. 3 Denver Pioneers aren’t looking ahead to the postseason just yet, but their recent results may have prepared them for a big series this weekend against archrival Colorado College.

Denver has won its last three games by one goal, including two in overtime.

Last weekend against Omaha, the team was strong defensively. Goaltender Filip Larsson only had to make 21 saves in Friday’s 1-0 shutout win. He was tested more in Saturday’s 3-2 overtime win, making 29 saves, though many of those were in the first two periods. He only faced four shots in the third period, and none in the overtime.

“I think we’ve been pushed to get better defensively by a lot of the teams that we’ve played, and I think the level of commitment and awareness that we have to defending our net front has increased a lot from not only our defensemen, but as a team collectively,” said Denver coach David Carle. “I think that has allowed us to keep shot counts down a little bit more in the stretch run versus where we were at the start of the year and has let us be overall a better defensive team.”

Of course, having a solid goalie also helps.

With Devin Cooley out with injury, Larsson stepped in and started both games. At the start of the year, it was Larsson who was hurt, and Cooley played most of the first two months. Cooley didn’t play much his first year at Denver, and Larsson was expected to be the goalie. For now, Denver has split time between the two, but Larsson was very solid against Omaha.

“I thought he saw the puck well both nights and was really confident,” said Carle. “On Friday when they had the 6-on-4 and the pulled-goalie situation, I thought Filip was the calmest person in the building. Saturday night it was more of the same. He’s big, he’s composed, and he’s a confident goalie right now. He’s very aware and very intelligent not only of his body, but of the game, and I think that’s what’s allowed him to transition so quickly into having success right away at the collegiate level.”

This weekend, Denver will be facing its old rival, Colorado College, as the battle for the Gold Pan resumes. The Gold Pan is awarded to the winner of the season series, and it has to be won outright for it to transfer from one team to another. In other words, if the teams were to go 2-2 against each other, it would stay with the team that has it.

Denver has owned the Gold Pan for the last four years, and indeed has dominated the rivalry of late. Prior to last February’s 1-0 win, one which required a Herculean 40-save effort from Alex Leclerc, CC hadn’t beaten Denver since Feb. 2014.

Carle knows the series will be a tough battle.

“We expect another really competitive series and high level of desperation, high level of intensity, not only because it’s CC, but it’s the NCHC,” said Carle. “Everybody’s fighting for points, and we saw it this past week with Omaha, points aren’t easy to get in this league. It doesn’t matter if you’re at home or you’re on the road, every point is earned. There’s going to be no difference with the level of intensity with Colorado College, and arguably it’ll be to a higher level because of the rivalry, so that’s what we’re expecting. To have success, I think we need to make sure that defensively we’re on our toes, we’re taking away time and space, offensively that we’re possessing pucks, taking it to the net when we have opportunities to, and letting the puck do the work. Lastly would be breaking the puck out. If we break the puck out clean, that’s usually been an indicator of success for us this year.”

For CC, the season has gotten even tougher, as the team has lost forward Nick Halloran for the season to a lower body injury. Halloran was the team’s leading scorer last year. However, Carle said that from what he saw of CC’s series against North Dakota, Denver should expect tough play.

“Nick’s a hell of a hockey player,” Carle said. “He’s an All-American, and it’s very unfortunate that he’s out for the year, but watching the games against North Dakota, I didn’t see any drop in in their ability to play fast and make plays. They were as hard to play against as we’ve ever seen in their games against North Dakota this past weekend without one of their best players.”

In addition to the intensity Denver saw from its series with Omaha, Carle also believes that facing Omaha goalie Evan Weninger will help the Pioneers when they face Leclerc this weekend.

“I think Alex is a little bit bigger, but very similar goalies as far as athleticism and their compete level in their crease,” said Carle. “It’ll be a lot of the same stuff as Weninger. We need to get in front of his eyes. We need to move him laterally. We need to make it hard for him to see pucks, and we need to make sure that we have a level of desperation.”

Denver’s senior players have discussed the rivalry and its intensity some with the younger players on the team, but overall, the team is focused more on what they need to do to have success, instead of the rivalry.

“At the end of the day, our league is intense, regardless of who you’re playing,” said Carle. “Have we talked about the level of intensity with the rivalry? Yes, we have. Have we talked about alumni and outside external factors to it? No, we haven’t. It’s about our daily preparation in practice this week and just making sure that we’re ready for that level of intensity, not putting too much pressure on ourselves to get the results on the weekend, but focusing really on what gives us success as a group.”