Team of the Week: Denver
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
Last week, Denver was without coach George Gwozdecky for two games with Minnesota-Duluth. The Pioneers desperately needed wins to make a late push for more favorable seeding in the WCHA tournament. Without Gwozdecky, whose father passed away late last week, the team persevered and headed back to Colorado with four points after two wins over the Bulldogs, earning CHN's Team of the Week honor for their performance under some difficult circumstances.
Associate coach Steve Miller pointed to a critical penalty kill in Saturday's game that shifted the series' momentum quickly. The Pioneers responded with three goals in 1 minute, 31 seconds to turn a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead they wouldn't relinquish. Prior to the scoring outburst, Denver killed a UMD two-man advantage to start the final regulation period. The four points put Denver in a third-place tie with North Dakota and Minnesota in the WCHA standings.
"(Sophomore goaltender Juho Olkinuora) made some big saves on the penalty kill," Miller said. "Your goalie needs to be your best penalty killer sometimes, and he was. We just wanted to come out that period and kill the penalty to try to get back into the game. Once we got through it, we knew we could get back in the game. We got big goals from Shawn (Ostrow) and Chris (Knowlton) then Nolan (Zajac) got the winner a little later."
Overcoming some issues that hampered their effort against St. Cloud State two weeks prior meant adjusting the team's mindset.
"The St. Cloud series got away from us," Miller said. "We used the little break we had to regroup and work on a few a things. It wasn't necessarily about winning last week, but we focused hard on playing well. We could've played really well and not won the game. We just wanted to see improvement in certain areas."
Helping players understand this process can be difficult for collegiate coaches. Difficult weekends often turn into difficult months when a team's attention is entirely on results. In all of the five Division I conferences, the final few months of the regular season mean games with rivals jockeying for position within a tightly packed league table. Gwozdecky, Miller and the rest of Denver's coaches conveyed this message well to their team ahead of the series with UMD. Even without Gwozdecky, the Pioneers' players focused on performing well enough to earn four critical points.
Miller said his team quickly returned to work focused on some of the areas they needed to work on moving forward. Despite the big penalty kill early in the third period last Saturday, the UMD scored on two power plays earlier in the game.
"We're all building toward March and the playoffs here," Miller said. "We wanted to get some points in Duluth, of course, but we could've played really well and lost. This time of year, we just want our team getting better. Every day in practice, we need to make some small improvements that help us be at our best in March. We could've lost a game last weekend and still seen improvements in some areas."
Denver's next test is Colorado College. The Pioneers and Tigers begin a home-and-home series Friday night at Magness Arena. With eight league games remaining, Denver will likely see the best each of their opponents can offer in these last four weeks. Successful performances with a focus on detail and improvement can mean big weekends like they saw in Duluth. However, veering from that can quickly lead to disappointing results.
"Duluth is a great team," Miller said. "We don't get an easy weekend in our league. We know we have to keep getting better, so we can get where we want to be in March. A couple weeks ago, we were reminded of that. St. Cloud kicked our butts. We weren't focused, and they beat us pretty good. I was happy with the way the guys responded, especially after George was out. Now, we have games with a great Colorado College team."
Denver's rivalry with Colorado College is an important date on the calendar every season. Earlier this year, the Pioneers swept the Tigers, 6-5 and 6-2, in their first meetings. Similar results this weekend could help the club in its mission to be the best team it can be come March. They'll get some reinforcement this weekend as well, as Gwozdecky will be behind the bench for the Pioneers, according to Miller.