Team of the Week: Denver
Mere months removed from the 2017 national championship, Denver was expected by many to cruise through its title defense campaign.
Those types of expectations, for this team, come naturally — for a program, after all, that has won 20 or more games for a remarkable 16 consecutive seasons. Indeed, for so many reasons, the Pioneers are favored to win every time they step onto the ice — their weekly success, perhaps, taken for granted.
That made Denver's trip to Kalamazoo, Mich., on the first weekend of November even more startling — not only losing two games, but doing so in a manner that was, well, very un-Denver: allowing six or more goals in consecutive games for the first time in well over a decade, while coughing up third period leads on back-to-back nights.
Last season, for comparison, Denver never lost when leading after two periods.
So it was back to the drawing board for head coach Jim Montgomery, and the results were immediate. After sweeping St. Cloud State, a team that had arrived in the Mile High City last Friday night as one of two unbeaten, untied teams in the nation, Denver is the CHN Team of the Week.
"It wasn't fun, that's for sure," said senior defenseman Adam Plant, of the week of practice at Magness Arena. "It was tough, but that's what we needed. We have the greatest coaching staff in the league, hands-down. They know exactly when to push us and give us time off. Credit to them. I never question a decision they made. If they push us hard, we're going to work hard.
"[We worked on] winning battles. Last weekend, our downfall was losing one-on-one battles. It was big being able to win battles in front of our net. That's where we gave up a lot of goals."
Denver stifled the then-top offense in the country, shutting down a Huskies unit that was averaging over four goals a game. The Pioneers also killed 10 of 11 St. Cloud power play opportunities, and the momentum that Montgomery's squad gained from that effort was significant.
"I thought our penalty kill was the best part of our game all weekend long," said Montgomery, who described the week of practice as 'very intense.' "[Assistant] Coach [David] Carle did a great job. Logan O' Connor is just a penalty-killing machine. We're getting it much more in sync. We changed our penalty kill a little bit from what it used to be, to be a little more aggressive so that we can take advantage of our forwards who can really skate."
"It's just a mindset," said Plant, who scored two power play goals in Saturday's win. "Last week was obviously disappointing. We worked hard in practice and went back to the details. That's what it takes to be a good defensive team. Give credit to everyone in that dressing room. We put defense first, and I think that's why we ended up on top."
The fact that Denver's defense anchored its weekend sweep is — to the Pioneers' opponents — perhaps the most concerning storyline of all. After all, following the graduation of Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher, the story of the offseason for Denver was its return of its lauded head coach, alongside a trio of star forwards — Henrik Borgstrom, Troy Terry, and Dylan Gambrell. Denver's unquestioned offensive leaders have certainly relished their returns, with the stronger, improved Borgstrom leading the nation in goals, and the other two also ranking in the top five in the nation in points per game.
In Denver's sweep of St. Cloud — a 4-2 win on Friday night followed by a 5-1 drubbing on Saturday — Montgomery chose to split the trio up, with each forward centering a different line. That resulted in a constant and dangerous wave of offense — and a level of momentum that the Huskies struggled to match. Still, it was the Pioneers' defensive effort that led to their offense.
"Everybody who played had a concerted effort to get on the right side of the puck," Montgomery said. "We were relentless coming back to our net. [St. Cloud] is a really good hockey team. They're very dangerous offensively. We did a lot of good things, and there are still a lot of areas to improve."
"'Just stick to our process, and success will come. Don't get frustrated,'" said Plant of the team's locker room motivation. "We're a good team. We can score. With game management, there's going to be times when they outplay us, but as long as we stick with it, we're going to be fine."
Denver hosts North Dakota in a pair of home games this weekend, and the Pioneers seem to have internalized the lessons learned from their losses at Western Michigan. Success at this level, after all — even for the national champions — isn't supposed to come easily.
Most know that intuitively, and now — by invaluable experience — Denver knows it, too.