The NCHC pod is entering its final weekend of play, and even a skeptic would have to admit it’s been a success, with some incredible games so far.
For No. 8 Denver, the pod has presented a particularly brutal schedule, with two games each against No. 3 Minnesota Duluth and No. 4 North Dakota, plus a game against No. 9 St. Cloud State.
After starting the season with three one-goal losses, two of which were games they held leads late in the third period, Denver has since gone 3-1, including a win over North Dakota, their first win against the Fighting Hawks since Feb. 1, 2019, after which Denver went 0-4-2.
Denver’s bright spot so far has been the play of three of its rookies, Carter Savoie, Mike Benning, and Antti Tuomisto. Savoie and Benning, who were teammates as juniors with the AJHL’s Sherwood Park Crusaders, are currently 1-2 on the team in scoring. Savoie has nine points, Benning seven, and Savoie has already earned NCHC rookie of the week honors once.
Tuesday night, the Pioneers earned a 3-2 win over Western Michigan to move to 3-4 on the year, with Savoie assisting on Cole Guttman’s opening goal on a power play. Goalie Corbin Kaczperski, a graduate transfer from Yale, got his first start with Denver and made 12 saves.
In his post-game presser, Denver coach David Carle said, “I have to say it didn’t feel like it was just 14 shots; it felt like it was more than that. I thought he [Kaczperski] had action throughout the night, particularly a four-five-minute segment in the second, then obviously in the third I thought they came with a push. Certainly, on the six-on-five, it was in our end the whole time. He competed, he fought to see pucks. I thought he did a pretty good job of getting some timely whistles. I liked his game tonight.”
One area where Denver has struggled has been defense. The Pioneers clearly miss defenseman Ian Mitchell, the captain last year who departed a year early to play for the Chicago Blackhawks. In three of Denver’s four losses, Denver has given up four goals, a trend they have to nip quickly, so limiting Western to 14 shots is progress, according to Carle.
“I thought our rush D was a lot better,” Carle said. “Our D’s gaps in taking away time and space was as good as it’s been here in the early going. I thought that limited them. They’re a very good offensive team. They’ve got some forwards that can really motor and go, and I thought our D-men did a pretty good job negating some of that.”
The defensive performance against Western Michigan was made more impressive by the absence of Benning, who was out with an injury. Carle said after the win that he expects Benning back in the lineup at some point during the pod, but he was unsure of when. Another key missing player is sophomore Bobby Brink, who had three points in three games during pod play before departing for the World Junior Championship to play for the United States.
The schedule for the pod has presented unique challenges for the teams, particularly given the early season level of fitness the players have. By the end of pod play on Sunday, Denver will have played seven games in 12 days.
When asked about the challenge after the win against Western on Tuesday, Carle said, “I think our guys feel pretty good. We’ve tried to manage our energy levels with shorter practices and making sure we’re doing activation and regen work at the hotel. Four games in six nights is the most we’ve had here. That’s our challenge as coaches and with our team, is to turn the page and make sure we’re being professional about taking care of our bodies with proper nutrition, sleep, hydration, and rest and using the resources that we do have to make sure that we can bounce back and have a good performance starting on Thursday night with a very good Miami team.”
Denver closes pod play with games against Western Michigan Saturday and No. 9 St. Cloud Sunday. After the Christmas break, the Pioneers will resume play on Jan. 1-2 with a home-and-home against arch-rival Colorado College.
Minnesota Duluth winning in different ways
In winning back-to-back national championships, Minnesota Duluth relied heavily on goaltender Hunter Shepard, who helped keep scorelines low, enabling the Bulldogs to win with timely scoring.
Shepard had looked strong in the COVID-19-ended season last year, and played every game.
However, Shepard graduated, so perhaps the biggest question mark for Duluth entering the season was who would be in net. Through pod play, coach Scott Sandelin has mostly turned to sophomore Ryan Fanti, who has started six of Duluth’s seven games. Fanti has been particularly strong against the NCHC’s best, holding North Dakota to two goals and only giving up a goal in each game against Denver.
After giving up four goals against Colorado College Sunday in Duluth’s first loss of the season, Sandelin might have been expected to look to Zach Stejskal, who started against Miami on Dec. 8 and only gave up two goals in a 4-2 win. Instead, Sandelin went with Fanti again on Wednesday night. Fanti turned in a brilliant performance against Omaha in a 2-2 tie. Omaha got the extra point in the shootout on the sixth round.
“He’s played great for us,” said Sandelin. “Obviously, a big question mark coming into the season with our goalies; none of them have played. We gave Ryan the start, and he kept winning. I think the Denver game, he was the difference, which gave us the chance to come back and score a couple power-play goals. I thought his play has given our team some confidence. He’s played great for us. He’s made key saves, timely saves, and tonight was no different.”