Rocky Mountain Way
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
The final weekend of the WCHA's regular season is here, and that means that Colorado's I-25 should see a bit more traffic than usual.
As is usually the case, the Denver Pioneers and Colorado College Tigers, only about an hour's drive from each other, close out the regular season with a home-and-home weekend series that has implications not only for the WCHA standings, but for the Pairwise as well.
And, of course, there are bragging rights to what has, in recent years especially, become a fiercely competitive rivalry.
"It's a great rivalry," said Denver coach George Gwozdecky. "Like any rivalry, it's intense and emotional. Many times, the games have been decided by which team controls its emotions better. I've been a part of the Michigan/Michigan State rivalry, the Wisconsin/Minnesota rivalry, and this DU/CC rivalry is as good as any of them."
"It's a rivalry that goes back to 1949, with two schools that are 60 miles apart," added Tigers coach Scott Owens. "There's been a rivalry for years, not only in hockey, but in football back in the old days, academics, and everything else. It's really heated up the last few years because both programs have had pretty good success."
Saying they have had "pretty good success" is probably an understatement. Colorado College has made the NCAA tournament in eight of the last 10 years, advancing to three Frozen Fours. And Denver, of course, won national championships in 2004 and 2005 but uncharacteristically missed the NCAA tournament last year.
Still, the Pioneers have used last year as a valuable learning experience.
"I think very few people understand how difficult it is to win a national title, let alone two," said Gwozdecky. "Any time you are the team to beat, your opponent plays harder against you. And if you're the team to beat for a long time, it's only human nature to lose a little bit of your edge, and I think there's no question we went through that."
This season, it's the Tigers who find themselves precariously on the Pairwise bubble. And after struggling mightily in February, they know that the implications on the national picture make this weekend's series with their archrival even more important.
Said Owens, "When you go 0-5-1 the last six games of February, you'd think your Pairwise would completely drop out of the scene. But our strength of schedule and our league strength of schedule is so strong that we're still hanging in there. So now, we continue to be in that spot, tied for 13th, where if we win, it would be huge for us.
"We're playing for pride against each other. But we're also on the bubble in the Pairwise, and we're trying to get home ice."
Like CC, Denver has stumbled a bit as well lately, with a 1-3-1 record in its last five games. They also lost both games to the Tigers earlier in the season — their only two losses in a 16-game stretch between late October and early January.
So what does each team need to do to get out of its respective slump?
Said Gwozdecky, "Physical and emotional health is important, going into the league playoffs and the national tournament. I hate to simplify, but I think goaltending is crucial, more so at this time of the year than at any time of the year. If you look at any team that's able to extend their season a long way, it's based upon the strength of their goaltending."
"Basically," added Owens, "we have to focus on the things that have gotten us the success we've had — our hard work, our unselfish play, our commitment to putting the team first. And then you just hope that you play hard and play well. We've just got to keep the ship going in the right direction and stay positive."
CC is currently hanging on to fifth place in the standings, but a drop to sixth or below would send them on the road for the playoffs next week. Therefore, the Tigers - only one point ahead of both Michigan Tech and Minnesota State - need at least three points to clinch the final home playoff spot. And, certainly, a successful weekend against Denver may also move them up into a more comfortable position in the Pairwise.
The WCHA final standings will of course fall into place by late Saturday night, but for now, as CC and Denver fans make the short trips to each other's schools over the weekend, it's all about their mile high rivalry.
"The fans get into it as much, if not more, than the teams at times," Owens said. "It's bragging rights, pride, tradition, and the two teams have been winning quite a bit of late. It gets pretty wild, pretty emotional. It's what college hockey is all about."