March 28, 2014 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Best on Best

Denver Defensemen Ready for BC's Dominant Forwards

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer

Denver's Nolan Zajac (11) is part of a talented defense corps. (photo: Matt Christians)

Denver's Nolan Zajac (11) is part of a talented defense corps. (photo: Matt Christians)

WORCESTER, Mass. — Six days ago, Denver learned it drew Boston College in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Familiar with his name already, the Pioneers' defensemen quickly discovered the greatness of BC winger Johnny Gaudreau.

"You can't let him get behind you," DU junior Josiah Didier said.

"When you realize the puck's turned over, he's already two steps up the ice," Denver coach Jim Montgomery, who coached Gaudreau in the USHL, said.

"We know they're talented," DU defenseman David Makowski said. "We're confident, though."

There's a reason for that.

In Montgomery's first season leading the Pioneers, pegging their potential was impossible. A new coach in a new league doesn't do a lot for confidence, but it's never smart to dismiss a team with this much talent, especially at the back.

"Mobile, puck-moving defensemen will always be a hallmark of our program," Montgomery said. "I'm very fortunate to walk into a program that already had this great of a D corps. Championship teams are built from the net out, and our team is built like that. Our strength starts in goal and goes through our D corps up to our forwards."

"We have three freshmen that have all stepped in and been able to contribute, which has been nice," Makowski said. "You know, we've just been really focused on our defense this year, and I think that's something that definitely helped us. Having Sam (Brittain) back there in net has definitely made us look a lot better than we are at times. It's good to have deep defensive corps like we do this year."

Led by Makowski, Didier and junior Joey LaLeggia, the DU blue line has proved the engine of a team blessed with an uncommonly good goaltender to boot. Senior goaltender Sam Brittain enters this weekend's Northeast Regional tied for third in the nation in save percentage (.934).

In front of Brittain, though, stands a defensive corps as talented, as diverse in skill as any group in the nation. The 36 goals from the group, which is first nationally, jumps out. Montgomery knows it's more than that.

"We have Joey LaLeggia, who takes you out of your seat with ability to rush the puck," he said. "What's really improved in his game was his defensive side. His offensive side, you can't teach those things. Will Butcher is a real calm, cool offensive defenseman. Then we have two blend defensemen with David Makowski, who is our best defensive defenseman, but is also incredible offensively. So is Nolan Zajac. Then we have a physical presence, a shutdown guy in Josiah Didier. That blend is the way you want to build your D corps. You want to have a lot of different looks, and people that bring a lot of different elements to create the whole package."

Makowski leads the unit, an aggressive puck mover and ace in his own end. Didier provides the steady presence of dominant, physical force. LaLeggia, national freshman of the year two seasons ago, has only improved the offensive game that made him star while becoming a reliable player in his own end.

"We have a good mixture of players," Didier said. "A lot of guys that can do a lot of things well. We have defenders that can score goals and move the puck. I think all of us move the puck well, and we can all skate well. One thing we focused on this year is being really solid in our own zone. When you're solid in your zone, it leads to offense."

Beyond this gifted trio, freshmen Will Butcher and Matt Van Voorhis along with sophomore Nolan Zajac round out the group. Like their upperclassman teammates, each excelling in one area and improving constantly in others.

In the NCHC title game, Montgomery paired Butcher with Makowski, LaLeggia with Zajac and Van Voorhis and Didier. Each pairing has an experienced upperclassman with a younger talent. Each pairing with the same mix of puck-rushing skill and defensive understanding. Each pairing capable of playing against the nation's top players.

Didier and LaLeggia both missed time down the stretch with injury. DU's depth without two of its best players came into question. Freshman Nick Neville and junior forward Matt Tabrum stepped in on the blue line to help the Pioneers cope. When DU's full complement of defensive talent returned to full health, it went on a run. After a loss to Nebraska-Omaha in the first game of an NCHC quarterfinal series, the Pioneers put together a four-game to win the NCHC's first postseason tournament. In those four games, they've allowed just seven goals.

The task on Saturday afternoon isn't lost on any of them. BC's ability to turn even the slightest patch of ice or briefest bit of hesitation into a goal means the Pioneers face their greatest test. Montgomery believes life in the NCHC has prepared his club to face anyone. Gaudreau isn't just anyone, though.

"Johnny Gaudreau is the kind of player that you pay to come see," Montgomery said

"He's so creative. He does things you don't see everyone do. That's what's exciting about watching him play. …  I know from coaching Johnny, his anticipation of when transition from defense to offense is going to happen. He doesn't end up on that many breakaways by a fluke. His timing is impeccable. I've been trying to show our players that when you realize that turnovers happen, he's already two strides ahead of you and behind you. We have to make sure that we keep Johnny Gaudreau in front of us."

Two weeks ago, the Eagles lost a quarterfinal series to Notre Dame. The two Eagle losses resulted in uncommonly quiet nights from Gaudreau and his linemates, winger Kevin Hayes and center Bill Arnold. The differences between Denver and Notre Dame aside, the Fighting Irish put forth something of a blue print to shut down the nation's best line. However, even a perfect game plan can go wrong against a group of forwards as diversely skilled as the the DU defensemen.

"Notre Dame does play quite differently than we do," Montgomery said. "The common thing that we saw, you want to be patient against that top line. You don't want to be running at them defensively. They'll make you look stupid. You have to mark your men well. The last thing is that you need to keep them in front of you."

Attacking Gaudreau, trying to knock him off the puck dooms a defenseman to fail. Thinking Hayes can't work in tight spaces is only an avenue for the 6-foot-4, 220-pound winger to sail around his opponent. Then there's Arnold, just waiting for people to forget about him. All season, opponents tried to press the Eagles' best players. Only when the focus shifted to containment and extreme defensive discipline did the Eagles falter.

Not many teams in the country have the talent on defense to keep Gaudreau and his boys in check. Denver is one of the few teams capable.

Presented with their toughest challenge on the season's biggest stage, Makowski said he and his teammates were confident. Saturday, they get the chance to show the world why.

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