Scoring high on list of challenges for Denver in Frozen Four semifinal

Tyson McLellan skates at KeyBank Center on Wednesday in Denver’s practice before playing UMass (photo: Melissa Wade).

BUFFALO, N.Y. — When Denver takes the ice against Massachusetts in Thursday’s late Frozen Four semifinal, two of college hockey’s best defenses will be squaring off and two goaltenders who posted back-to-back shutouts in their respective regionals will be at opposite ends of the ice.

The difference between the defenses is negligible; the Minutemen have allowed 1.97 goals per game on average to the Pioneers’ 1.98.

In net, both teams will start freshmen named Filip, Lindberg for UMass and Larsson for Denver. In the Northeast Regional, Lindberg made 30 total saves as the Minutemen outscored their opponents 8-0. In the West Regional, Larsson made 50 saves as the Pioneers scored five total goals on the weekend.

Those three more goals that UMass scored, those fewer shots that Lindberg faced and the total number of shots the Minutemen put up against their opponents in their NCAA run may add up to a key difference in this semifinal.

“Well, yeah, we’ve been better defensively,” said Denver coach David Carle. “Offensively, we’ve been struggling.”

In the West Regional, Denver had 37 total shots and was held to just 13 against Ohio State while UMass put 70 shots on net in the Northeast Regional. The Pioneers have the 28th-best offense in the nation this season, averaging 2.80 goals per game. But Denver put up six goals against Colorado College and four against North Dakota, both in the NCHC tournament last month, and the Pioneers have outscored opponents 17-6 in five of their last six games with three shutouts thrown into that mix.

“Offensively,” said Carle, “I think we’re trying to focus on a few things and continue especially on our power play, our five-on-five offense, trying to produce more goals and more opportunities to put the puck in the back of the net.”

Denver finished the 2017-18 season with the ninth-best offense in the nation, averaging 3.29 goals per game. That was a Pioneers team, though, that had 29 goals from Henrik Borgström, 14 from Troy Terry and 13 from Dylan Gambrell — all players who left for the professional ranks before their college eligibility had expired. That’s a loss of just over 40% of Denver’s total goal production from a year ago.

This season, Denver’s leading goal scorer is senior Jarid Lukosevicius (19-10 — 29), with junior Liam Finlay (16-20 — 36) and freshman Cole Guttman (12-11 — 23) the only other players on the Pioneers’ roster with 10 or more goals. The team’s struggles to find the net this season, said Carle, is in part because of the squad’s youth. While Denver is making its third Frozen Four appearance in four years, there are 19 total freshmen and sophomores making the trip this year.

“It’ll be a new experience for those 19 guys,” said Carle. “Our juniors and seniors have obviously been there before, and I think they’ve done a great job leading our young kids forward and have been a huge catalyst in their ability to grow throughout the year.”

It’s the steady progress under seasoned leadership that helped bring the Pioneers to Buffalo. Carle, in his first year as head coach in Denver after 4½ seasons as a Pioneers assistant, is clearly appreciative of what his upperclassmen have done for this team.

“We’ve had great leadership all year long with our senior group, particularly with Colin Staub and Lukosevicius,” said Carle. “They understand what it takes. They understand what it means to be a Denver Pioneer, and I think they’ve done an unbelievable job helping our young kids learn.”

Staub, a senior forward and the team’s captain, has been leading by example on the ice in the playoffs with three goals in his last five games. That’s after having scored four in the previous 35 this year.

Staub said that the Denver hockey team has become family. “That’s the biggest takeaway for me,” said Staub. “To be able to win this national championship with my family would be the best way to put away DU for me.”

With their young team and an offense that is still seeking consistency, the Pioneers have a bit of a chip on their shoulders, with a team saying: Prove them wrong. Who is “them”? Everyone, said Carle, that isn’t Denver.

“I don’t think anybody or many people expected us to be here,” said Carle. “I think our team always believed, our program believed, our department believed.”

Whether that belief will translate into the goals that Denver needs against Massachusetts in Thursday’s semifinal game has yet to be determined, but Carle and the Pioneers are counting on everything they did this season that brought them back to the Frozen Four.

“It’s a 60-minute hockey game,” said Carle. “The rules are all the same. We’re excited to go out and put our best foot forward.”