January 24, 2014 PRINT Bookmark and Share

North Dakota, Denver Renew Rivalry in NCHC

by Dave Starman/Columnist

(The CBS Sports Network has two great rivalry games on tonight starting at 7pm. Game 1 features an AHA showdown between Western New York neighbors RIT and Niagara. Eric Frede, Jim Paradise and Ryan Cruthers on the call. The main event features a heavyweight tilt in Denver as North Dakota and the Pioneers renew their annual hatred.  Ben Holden, Dave Starman and Shireen Saski Starman on the call from Magness Arena.)

I generally don’t get into which is the best rivalry in college hockey because there are a lot of really good ones. I will say that I always thought some of those old WCHA showdowns exhibited a more play for keeps/frontier justice attitude when the big programs got together. One rivalry that justifies that feeling was always Denver and North Dakota.

The old west was shaped by battles between the Sioux (among others) and the Pioneers, and I’m not talking about hockey players.  Read your history of the mid to late 1800s, and you’ll understand the savagery of the Frontier Wars between those who blazed the trails west and those who fought to keep the land theirs.          

The old WCHA saw its share of battles between what were then the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota and the Denver Pioneers.  The rivalry has seen each team win big games. Denver had the upper hand in the early 2000s winning a regional final against NoDak in 2004 (1-0) and then beating them in the national championship game in Columbus in the allpWCHA Frozen Four of 2005.

In recent years, Matt Fratin scored a double OT goal in the 2011 WCHA Final Five to beat Denver, and NoDak beat Denver 4-0 to win the Final Five in 2012. In the 2010 Final Five, the Green and Black beat Denver 4-3 to win that semifinal game. In the NCAA Tournament, their most recent meeting was a 6-1 win by NoDak in a 2011 Regional Final.

Then you have the Robbie Bina incident, the Brad Malone hit on Jesse Martin and the memorable George Gwozdecky ejection in a regular season game in Grand Forks where he “accidentally” walked half way across the ice before remembering his dressing room was behind his bench. As Gwoz reminded me earlier this week, he was tossed out of only two games as a head coach in his NCAA career — both against North Dakota.

So now to this years’ edition of the matchup. North Dakota is as hot as any team in the nation, and its reputation as a second-half team precedes them. Despite a lower-body injury to goalie Zane Gothberg this week in practice, North Dakota is finally healthy for the most part.  Their depth is showing, their tenacity has been terrific, their defenseman are growing up in front of us on a weekly basis.  With no disrespect to the likes of Kevin Hayes-Bill Arnold-Johnny Gaudreau at BC and some of the nation’s other dynamic trios, the best line in college hockey might be Rocco Grimaldi between Drake Caggiula and Luke Johnson.

On the Denver side new Pioneer coach Jim Mongomery, a rising star in the coaching community, has DU feeling pretty good.  Adhering to a pay-attention-to-the-details-philosophy, the Pioneers have bought in to the close checking puck support game that Montgomery preaches. A disciple of two coaching greats in college hockey, Shawn Walsh and Jeff Jackson, Montgomery has his defensemen playing with poise and his forwards backchecking well and giving those defensemen good options to outlet passes.

Where this game intrigues me in is this matchup. North Dakota is a physical team that wants to push the pace, be physical, go to the net and keep the puck moving. Denver’s players I recently spoke with were mixed when they tried to decide if, offensively, they’d describe themselves as a puncher or a counter-puncher. I see them as a little of each, but what they can do is react to a surge against them well with their forecheck discipline, ability to defend the hard areas and quick counterattack off turnovers. They remind me a little of the 1995 Devils with their patience, maturity and puck-support game.

Can North Dakota’s attack style game overwhelm the poise and goaltending of Denver? Denver’s Sam Brittain has been terrific this season in goal. Every goalie gets a mulligan or two for bad games, and Brittain gets his for two weeks ago against St. Cloud. He was the rock Denver needed last Saturday night as Minnesota-Duluth came out storming after a Friday night home defeat.  Denver knew the puch was coming, stayed calm and Brittain held the fort while the team got their legs underneath them.

Brittain, who in my opinion is a cross between Mike Liut and Sean Burke as a goalie, gives Denver the X factor moving ahead.  Mentally tough, physically gifted and well respected in the dressing room, he provides Denver with a calm that allows their skill guys to play relaxed and confident.

So the game within the game Friday night sees UND’s pressure against Denver’s ability to take away space as one factor. The Denver penalty kill has been terrific and North Dakota’s power play has had some good looks but has not been as strong as it has been at other times this season. Denver’s defensemen are really good, especially when it comes to the offensive side. Can their ability to get back for pucks and generate offense from their own zone create havoc for North Dakota and their “full-court press”?

A lot of things to watch and learn tonight as two of the nation most successful programs, and two that do not like each other very much, meet up in Denver on CBS Sports Network.

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