USCHO GAME OF THE WEEK: Surging Denver travels to play Omaha in key NCHC series

Brett Stapley (Denver-7) 2019 March 23 Denver and Colorado College meet in the 3rd place game of the NCHC  Frozen Face Off at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN (Bradley K. Olson)
Brett Stapley has compiled four goals and 17 points in 21 games for Denver during the 2019-20 season (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

If you want to see an example of two teams that have been on divergent paths of late, Denver and Omaha are good examples.

Despite last weekend’s win that snapped North Dakota’s 13-game home win streak, Omaha has gone 5-9-3 since opening the season 4-1-0. Omaha is also currently seventh in the NCHC with a 3-6-1 record.

Denver, however, after going through a losing streak in November, has won its last six games and climbed back into the hunt for the Penrose Cup, awarded to the NCHC regular-season champion, and also moved into a more secure position for home ice in the first round of the NCHC playoffs.

Last weekend was a big one for the Pioneers, who hosted St. Cloud State. Denver was coming off a hard-fought sweep of No. 9 Massachusetts and needed to avoid the letdown. Denver swept the Huskies, winning 6-3 and 5-3, though both games were closer than they might appear.

“For us, it was playing to our identity and trying to play fast, take our puck-pressure game to them,” said Denver coach David Carle. “I think both nights, if you look at it, we started fast. We got ahead in both games, and that’s something that’s been a challenge for us. If you look at our stats, we’ve let the first goal in more times than we scored the first goal. We wanted to have good starts and just try to play to our identity from the first puck drop.

“Coming off an emotional weekend against UMass, we feel like that was really important for us, just turn the page and move on from the weekend before and get to playing good hockey.”

On Friday, the Pioneers built a 3-1 lead in the second, but a late second-period power-play goal put St. Cloud in the hunt. The game turned dramatically in the third. With St. Cloud on a power play and pressing, Denver captain Ian Mitchell broke the puck out of the zone and raced up the ice, scoring on a partial breakaway to put Denver back up by two.

“Ian was good all weekend,” said Carle. “Your best players, and he’s one of them, need to be your best players to win hockey games in the second half. He was really good all weekend long and I thought made an impact with and without the puck. If you boil it down to that one play, it was great instincts to jump when he did and to get his eyes up and see that he could keep going. Obviously, a short-handed goal in the third period is a huge lift, especially one that gives you a little bit of separation on the scoreboard. Proud of his effort, and we know how good of a player Ian is.

“We believe in him to keep doing things like that for us through the second half.”

Denver also got scoring from some players who don’t always see the scoresheet. Hank Crone had two goals in Friday’s win, and Tyler Ward had two in Saturday’s victory. Denver doesn’t have a single player averaging over a point a game. Sophomore Emilio Pettersen leads the team in scoring with 21 points in 22 games.

“We think that we have good offensive depth,” said Carle. “It’s always nice when other guys can contribute, and we think we have a lot of them through our four lines and our six ‘D.’ I think it’s a strength of our team.”

While the series was overall a success, Carle acknowledges the team needs to learn some lessons from it.

On Saturday, Denver built a 4-0 lead by 13:20 of the second, only to let St. Cloud score two late in the second period and then pull within one by 7:10 of the third. Denver had some close moments holding onto the lead before Pettersen scored an empty-netter at 19:13 to seal the win.

“I think it’s two parts, right? There are two teams on the ice. Shots before they scored their first goal were like 24-5 in our favor. They’re a proud team, and they’re not going to just go away,” Carle said. “I think a lot of credit needs to be given to (Brett) Larson and his staff and their team for responding and sticking with it and keeping going. It’s not easy to do that down 4-0 on the road on a Saturday night where you lost on Friday. So, a lot of it, I think, was them. They upped their intensity, and our guys probably lowered ours a little bit. It was a combination of the two teams on the ice. Certainly lesson learned.

“Any team in our league can score goals and make you pay if you take your foot off the gas. You have to play a full 60 minutes in a game and a full 120 on a weekend to get sweeps in our league, typically. It’s good to learn lessons while winning, and we’ve got to make sure that we do that.”

This weekend starts back-to-back league series on the road for Denver, and Carle knows the team will face a big challenge. The Pioneers struggled in their two most recent road weekends, failing to come away with a win against Minnesota Duluth or Arizona State.

“They’re a dangerous team offensively, there’s no doubt about that at all,” Carle said. “They don’t need a lot of chances to put the puck in the back of the net. They have a lot of one-shot scorers on their team, and they’re a really creative and dangerous offensive group. That’s five-on-five and on the power play. It’s a good challenge for us. Our last NCHC road trip didn’t go how we wanted it. We need to show that we’ve taken a step as a group playing on the road in our league. Your attention to detail has to go to another level. Your commitment to our process has to go to another level.

“It will be a good test for us this weekend starting at Omaha. We’ve got to prove to one another that we can play the right way on the road.”

Other big games

In the Big Ten, No. 18 Notre Dame will look to restart after getting swept by Michigan last week in a key series against No. 9 Ohio State. Notre Dame is mired in a 2-8-2 slump and is in fourth place in the Big Ten standings, trailing Ohio State and Michigan State by four points. An Ohio State sweep would crush Notre Dame’s precarious PairWise position.

In Hockey East, No. 5 Boston College will face No. 13 UMass Lowell on Friday before hosting arch-rival Boston University Saturday. The Eagles trail the River Hawks and the three-team second-place log jam in the Hockey East standings by a point. BC also has games in hand over all four teams above them in the standings.

In the WCHA, No. 3 Minnesota State travels to No. 15 Bowling Green and will try to keep its momentum going. Bowling Green is one of the few teams to beat Minnesota State this year, capturing a 3-2 overtime win on Nov. 1.

Lastly, in a nonconference series, No. 17 Northern Michigan travels to No. 1 Cornell for a pair.