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March 23, 2012 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Denver Riddled With Question Marks

by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer

As if preparing to face the regular season CCHA champion Ferris State Bulldogs isn't cause for enough concern, the Denver Pioneers enter the NCAA tournament on Friday with a lot of questions — from goaltending, to special teams, to the mere ability to put enough players on the ice.

And for all the questions, there are few definitive answers.

"I'm just not sure where we're at from a manpower standpoint right now," said coach George Gwozdecky as the weekend approached.

During the past week alone, as many as nine players missed time in practice for Denver. A week ago, in the 4-0 loss to North Dakota in the WCHA championship game, Gwozdecky used two forwards — Matt Tabrum and Nate Dewhurst — as defensemen, and he may be forced into a similar scenario this weekend

Continued Gwozdecky, "Many of our guys are going to be game day or gametime decisions [on Friday]. I don't believe we will be 100 percent healthy. We have three healthy goaltenders, which is a good thing, but after that, there are a lot of questions."

In the wake of injuries to Jason Zucker, Paul Phillips, Josiah Didier, David Makowski, Chris Knowlton and Beau Bennett, a makeshift lineup for the NCAA tournament is likely. But underlying the injury concerns is a larger question: how will the Pioneers match the level of play of a team in Ferris State that is one of the better teams in the nation defensively?

"We're more concerned with being able to play our defensive game as best we can to be able to give ourselves a chance," said Gwozdecky. "I don't know if there's a better team [than Ferris State] that we will play from the sense of being able to defend. In their own zone, in the offensive zone, in the neutral zone, they are a team that is extremely patient. They do a tremendous job, whenever the opponent gets the puck, of surrounding them. They block shots as well as any team that I've seen.

"Chances are, the game will be very low scoring. It could be 1-0. They like that kind of a game, and we don't mind that kind of a game. It should be a real battle of the wills, that's for sure."

With the possibility of a low-scoring game, emphasis shifts to special teams — which then begins to raise yet another layer of questions for Denver.

Although both Ferris State and Denver have performed well on the power play during the course of the season, the Pioneers have stumbled lately, converting on only one of their last 20 opportunities with the man-advantage.

"It is a concern," said Gwozdecky of his team's power-play performance. "We've been looking at it. There's a number of things that makes up a successful power play. We're not doing a very good job of bringing the puck into the zone and being able to gain possession. Our spacing has been poor, and the reason for that is I think we're a little bit too anxious. We want to start heading up the ice, and our spacing, our timing, isn't there. And when we do get possession in the offensive zone, we've made some poor decisions.

"We need to find ways to simplify our power play to be able to create some scoring chances. Fortunately for us, we were able to see some areas during our league playoffs that need to be corrected. And corrected they will be."

A third question for Denver relates to goaltending. During the course of the 2011-12 season, freshman Juho Olkinuora has earned approximately half the starts, with the remaining half split between sophomore Sam Brittain and junior Adam Murray. Brittain was hurt most of the season, and Murray was expected to get the bulk of those starts. But it was Olkinuora who wound up stepping up, and when Brittain returned, the pair split time.

It was Olkinuora in net against North Dakota a week ago, allowing four goals on 22 shots.

But in the days leading up to Friday's matchup against Ferris State, Gwozdecky has indicated that Brittain, who has NCAA tournament experience — including a first-round win against Western Michigan last year — and in fact led the team's goaltending trio with a .931 save percentage this season, has a "greater than 50/50" chance of being the starter on Friday.

Nevertheless, despite all the questions — from goaltending to special teams to personnel — Gwozdecky remains confident. Even if there are no answers for now.

"We've had challenges throughout the year," said Gwozdecky, who has won two national championships with Denver (2004, 2005). "We've got great confidence that whoever is in that lineup is going to be able to handle those responsibilities."
 

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