The 'Zar of Denver
Pioneers Freshman Stands Out Among Illustrious Crowd
by Joshua Berhow/CHN Writer
To Luke Salazar, Patrick Wiercioch and Joe Colborne can cast a pretty big shadow.
All three came to Denver this fall as freshmen, and Wiercioch and Colborne were both drafted during the summer, Wiercioch 42nd overall by Ottawa and Colborne 16th overall by Boston. Both had plenty of hype surrounding them.
As though their draft status wasn’t intimidating enough, standing at 6-foot-4 and 6-5, respectively, the pair towers over fellow Pioneers freshman Salazar, who stands at 5-7 and barely 150 pounds. But Salazar’s play as a rookie has helped him emerge from the shadow and start casting his own on the ice.
“Whenever Luke is with either one of those two guys, it’s like he’s their little brother,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky. “But Luke’s one of the big surprises of our team and no question the surprise of our freshmen class. He’s been terrific.”
Salazar is one of five Denver freshmen on this season’s team, with Wiercioch (11-21—32) and Colborne (9-20—29) leading the rookies in scoring.
“Those two are unbelievable,” Salazar said. “They will definitely be in the NHL some day, and playing with those guys and learning from them is unreal already.”
Salazar, however, made his mark early in the season, with two goals and an assist in the Pioneers’ first regular season game of the year. He is tied for the team-lead in goals with 15. His five game-winning goals are tied for first in the WCHA with another 5-7 forward, St. Cloud State’s Ryan Lasch. Salazar’s most recent game-winner was Saturday with 48 seconds left against Alaska-Anchorage in the first round of WCHA playoffs — a goal that sent the Pioneers to St. Paul for this weekend’s Final Five.
“I just wanted to get into the lineup as much as I could and help out the team,” Salazar of his freshman year. “But I definitely didn’t expect to have the season I’ve had so far.”
Salazar started the season playing alongside sophomore Tyler Bozak and flourished early on, taking advantage of his time with one of the best centers in the nation. But when Bozak injured his knee in a December series with Minnesota State, most of the Denver forwards, including Salazar, have had their lines fluctuating for the last half of the season trying to find a fit.
“Because Tyler Bozak’s been hurt for half the season and not been in our lineup, it has forced Luke to develop more of a multi-dimensional role,” Gwozdecky said. “When he was playing with Bozak, as long as he got open, somehow the puck was going to find him. Now he’s bounced around line-to-line trying to find the right combination.”
And because of the void left by Bozak, Gwozdecky said Salazar has had to turn into a better player in all aspects of the game. And he hasn’t disappointed.
He’s 10th in the WCHA in goal scoring and his 24 points is the ninth-highest total among WCHA freshmen.
Bozak is likely out until the NCAA tournament, and now with Tyler Ruegsegger out for the season after an injury during Friday’s game against the Seawolves, Salazar might need to take another step up for Friday’s semifinal game against Wisconsin.
The Pioneers are already 4-0 against the Badgers this season, and with Salazar’s two goals and four points in the previous four meetings, he might be watched a bit closer on the ice Friday. He is, after all, out of the shadows now.