Despite Youth Movement, Denver Back in Contention
by Justin Magill/CHN Writer
With the regular season end approaching, the Denver Pioneers once again are quietly entering the postseason under the radar, despite being ranked in the top 10 for most of the season.
However, Denver coach George Gwozdecky said he understands the reasoning, at least for this year.
"I don't know why we haven't been talked about in recent years, but this season I can understand," Gwozdecky said. "We had a big turnover in our roster this season, losing guys to graduation or heading to the pros."
It has led to a shift of experienced leadership, to pure, young talent taking over for the Pioneers.
Denver's top two scorers are sophomore Drew Shore (19-19-38) and freshman Jason Zucker (18-16-34).
Of the seven players that have eclipsed the 20-point mark, four are sophomores or younger.
"We knew coming in that if we were going to be successful, our young guys would have to step up and be a factor for us," Gwozdecky said. "So far, you really couldn't ask more from them. They have been fantastic for us this season and are a big reason why were are in contention in the WCHA and you look at Drew and Jason, they have been our offensive leaders for us the whole season."
Halting opponents' goals has not been a problem for Denver either, and it can credit another freshman, Sam Brittain, for that. Compiling a 13-6-5 record, 2.27 goals against and a .921 save-percentage, Brittain has turned the big question mark for the Pioneers into an exclamation point.
"Sam has really come out of nowhere and played extremely well, Gwozdecky said. "Look at the guy he had to replace. Marc Cheverie was probably the best goalie in the country last season. Sam, with no college experience, has been not one of our better younger players, but one of our best players on the team."
"He has been a big reason why we are fighting for first place," Shore said. "Sam just does his job and we all know we can count on him, so it's our job to go out and help him, because he has done everything he can to allow us to win.
Despite splits in its last two series against Minnesota and cellar dweller, Michigan Tech, the Pioneers are still within an arm's length of another WCHA regular season title. North Dakota leads the conference, but are only two points ahead with four games left in the WCHA season.
"We are right there," Shore said. "and have been there for pretty much the whole year, so I guess I don't know why we don't get a lot of recognition for it, but that's OK. As long as we get into the tournament and make a run, it doesn't matter how much attention we do or do not get."
Denver's recent splits, with Minnesota and Michigan Tech, came against two teams that are not expected to make significant postseason runs. Minnesota, known for its traditionally strong hockey program, is in danger of missing out of the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season.
The defeats have provided an important learning experience a young Denver team.
"You have to respect your opponent," Gwozdecky said. "Against Minnesota, we got punched in the mouth pretty good on both nights, even though we came out of there with two points. When your team is in the position we are in, those types of weekends, you are going to analyze your team and work on some things. If you play well and lose, I think most coaches in the country can deal with that. It's when your team is not executing the little things that make it hard to deal with."
Denver hasn't had too many ups and downs through the year, which doesn't really grab the headlines that conference foe North Dakota does on a yearly basis with its annual second-half run.
However, it does enough to be right in the thick in the race for the MacNaughton Cup and Broadmoor Trophy.
It has learned that once in the NCAA tournament, the regular season and conference tournaments mean nothing to what is about to transpire.
"It is weird," Gwozdecky said. "We have won the whole thing and have lost in the first round of the NCAAs right away when we have played well in the regular season. There have been years when we haven't even made it to St. Paul (for the WCHA Final Five) and won the national title."
In the 2003-04 season, Denver lost in the first round of the WCHA playoffs to in-state rival Colorado College in two games. Despite being swept, the Pioneers made it to the NCAA tournament and won the national championship.
A year later, it won the MacNaughton Cup, Broadmoor Trophy and NCAA title.
"We have also won the Final Five, but lost in the first round of the tournament, too," Gwozdecky said. "I know it's cliché and every coach says it, but you just have to make sure you are playing your best at the end."
Last year, the Pioneers won the MacNaughton Cup, faltered in the WCHA Final Five and lost in the first round of the NCAAs for third consecutive season as a No. 1 seed.
Even though it has had some early exits, Denver has been getting to the tournament and has seven titles to prove its success. The Pioneers might not be the country's most exciting team, but it will play the game their way and once again, silently challenge for a conference regular and postseason title, along with receiving one of the top seeds in the NCAA tournament.
"We will just play our game," Shore said. "There isn't much more that we can do. It has worked before and hopefully we can make a deep run in the tournament."