Denver starts second half of season on right foot, looking to ‘treat every opponent the same’

Hank Crone of Denver, North Dakota vs. Denver at Magness Arena, Nov. 15, 2019. (Candace Horgan)
Hank Crone has collected two goals and 10 points in 19 games this season for Denver (photo: Candace Horgan).

Going into last weekend, Denver fans might have had cause for concern.

The Pioneers had struggled mightily in November and early December, and while a sweep of arch-rival Colorado College to close the first half was a bright spot, it was unclear if Denver had righted the ship. Further, the Pioneers were facing a very good Massachusetts team, one that had ended Denver’s season last year in the Frozen Four.

According to Denver coach David Carle, that loss wasn’t something the players dwelled on.

“We maybe said it one time on Saturday going into the week, but once we were in our game-prep mode for the week, we didn’t talk about last year at all, because we’re different, they’re different. We try to treat every opponent the same. It wasn’t a focal point for us.”

In both games, Denver trailed. On Friday, the Pioneers rallied from a 2-1 deficit in the third period, and on Saturday they rallied from a 2-0 second-period deficit. Carle sees some similarities with the Frozen Four game, though this time Denver came out on top.

“I thought our guys just really stuck to our game plan. I think we believed that we were going to get chances and opportunities if we just kept playing the right way and doing our thing. It wasn’t dissimilar to last year. We were down 3-1 in the third against them, and we felt like we just stuck with it. We eventually got rewarded, got the game tied and into overtime. We didn’t have the end result we wanted, but we gave ourselves a chance. So, I think the same thing happened this weekend. Our bench was really undeterred by a lot of the adversity that came at us, and they just continued to stick with it.”

One Denver player who has come on of late is sophomore Cole Guttman, who has scored in five straight games.

Guttman has made a habit of scoring against UMass. In the Frozen Four, he scored two goals in the third to tie it and send it to overtime. Last weekend, he scored two points and the game-winning goal in each game against UMass. Friday’s was a beauty, a backhand from the goal line that he banked in off UMass goalie Filip Lindberg’s arm.

“He’s playing some of his best hockey for us,” said Carle of Guttman. “I think for him it starts without the puck. When he’s pressuring pucks and playing the game on his toes, he’s a really good player. That’s what he’s been. He’s really been attacking the game with and without the puck. We’ve seen it every day in practice, and it’s translating into games, which is great for him and great for our team.”

Another player who had an impact last weekend was freshman Bobby Brink, who only played Saturday after returning from the World Junior Championships. Brink scored the goal that put Denver ahead 3-2 in the second period.

“Yeah, I think both him and (Zac) Jones (of UMass) were really good in the game coming back from their travel,” Carle said. “Both made impacts on the game. I think any time for players in that tournament, a lot of times they come home with a lot of confidence and belief in themselves. I think we saw that out of Bob, not that he lacked confidence going over there, but I thought he played really well on Saturday night. I think it’s a real good sign of things to come for him.”

Asked about the streak where Denver had one win in eight games and Carle keys in on the Saturday game against Arizona State that ended in a draw as important for his team’s growth.

“I think when you look at the eight-game stretch, it was up-and-down play for us,” Carle said. “I think any time we go through adversity, we try and learn from it and grow. There’s still a lot of the season left, but a real good moment for us was the Friday to Saturday game down in Arizona. We didn’t play up to our standards on Friday, and I think our guys made up their mind that enough was enough and they had had it. They wanted to play the game the right way and play a little bit more to our identity. I think that they’ve done that now the last five games. We feel like we deserved a better fate Saturday at ASU, and then, obviously, we played real well in the Colorado College weekend and get two good games under our belt here in the second half against UMass.

“Every team goes through a different growth trajectory and path. This one went through some tough times in November, and I think ultimately it’s helped us grow and show us the team that we need to be.”

This weekend, Denver hosts St. Cloud. While the Pioneers have been very strong in out-of-conference action, including sweeps of ranked Hockey East teams Boston College and UMass, the NCHC conference action has been a struggle, as they are 3-3-2. In fact, it was NCHC play that kicked off that tough eight-game stretch with a tie and loss to Minnesota Duluth.

“We’re in a dogfight in our conference to get back into the mix of where we want to be,” said Carle. “We’re only .500 in league play. I think anytime you’re playing league opponents, the excitement and the juices naturally are flowing. We know we have a real good St. Cloud team coming in here that is starting to play better hockey. They’re a young team, not dissimilar to what we were last year. With a young team, you can grow a lot during the year. I think what we’ve seen out of St. Cloud is they’ve grown a lot and they’re a different team right now than they were at the start of the year. I don’t think their record is indicative of who they are as a team and their play. I think we all know that you can’t take anyone lightly in our league.

“You have to respect your opponents. We expect two really good games against a team that we went 0-2 against last year.”

North Dakota sets new home streak record

With a sweep of Alabama Huntsville last weekend, the red-hot University of North Dakota set a new home win streak record with its 13th straight win at Ralph Engelstad Arena, a streak that dates back to a series against Omaha last year. The team’s previous streak in the arena was 12 games, set over seven games in their last national championship season and the first five home games of the following season.

Jordan Kawaguchi’s ridiculous between the legs goal in the record-setting game got a nod on SportsCenter as well.

NCHC sports top out-of-conference record

The NCHC again has the best out-of-conference record in college hockey, going 45-26-12 (.614).

What’s really interesting about that stat is that five of the teams in the conference have records under .500, though four of those teams (CC, Omaha, SCSU, and WMU) are only a game or two under .500. Their losing records are mainly due to struggling in the league. Three of the five teams with a losing overall record are 2-5-1 in conference play, one is 3-5, and one 3-4-1.