Denver Vows to Return to Form For NCAAs After Streak Snapped
North Dakota Earns Shutout to Advance to NCHC Final
by James Gilligan/CHN Reporter
North Dakota needed a serendipitous bounce to upset top-rated Denver, 1-0, in the semifinals of the NCHC tournament Friday. The win finally assures the Fighting Hawks' NCAA tournament bid for a 15th consecutive season and a chance to defend their title.
For Denver, though, it was an unceremonious end to a 13-game winning streak and a reminder that, despite being atop the Pairwise for the second half of the season, just how difficult it is to win titles.
Austin Poganski’s goal, which came when a Colton Poolman shot deflected off the back wall and onto his stick on the back door, sent Denver down. For a team that averaged over 4 goals per game during the streak, to get shut out is tough.
But don’t expect NCHC tournament losses to hurt Denver’s chances at a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Snapping a 13-game winning streak isn’t ideal on the eve of the NCAAs, but the Pioneers still have the nation’s top defense. And while the old saying is “defense wins championships,” it may be more fittingly amended for DU to say “defense scores goals.”
“We always say that great defense leads to great offense, and I think that’s helped our team’s success,” Hobey Baker Award finalist and NCHC Player of the Year Will Butcher said.
As a defenseman in the top 15 nationally for assists, Butcher is the prime example of how the Pioneers succeed with puck-moving backliners. But playing with desperation, the Fighting Hawks swarmed the neutral zone Friday night, and bodied the Pioneers out of getting too many of the opportunities in transition that they’ve found so much success on this season.
“They just made one more play than we did," Denver coach Jim Montgomery said. "It was really tight checking, there wasn’t really a lot of open ice out there. It was good for us to see that."
Even as UND played the majority of the game in its offensive zone, the Pioneers, the nation’s top defense with a 1.84 goals against average, held the Fighting Hawks at bay for much of the game. Denver just lacked both the puck luck and sustained offensive pressure to win Friday night.
Friday’s loss may prove the most beneficial of the games that Denver has played leading up to the NCAA tournament. As their 13-game winning streak was built on the backs of largely inferior opponents with losing records, Friday’s game was a good gut check, and a chance to further motivate the Pioneers as they move forward into the NCAA tournament.
Maybe Denver had it too easy during its run.
“Just the pace and knowing how to play a team that’s this tight checking, it’s what we’re going to see in the NCAA tournament,” Montgomery said. “I thought for a while here that our practices haven’t been at the pace that they need to be, but we’ve been successful so it’s hard to really get mad at your players when you keep having success.
"I think this is the only benefit, or silver lining out of this, is that we’re going to get back to practicing with pace.”