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University of Denver Pioneers weekend preview: Western Michigan

DU opens NCHC play with a weekend series in Kalamazoo

NCAA Hockey: Frozen Four-Denver vs Minnesota-Duluth Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The #1 University of Denver Pioneers will open their defense of their NCHC regular season crown when they travel to open conference play at Western Michigan Friday and Saturday.

The Pioneers (4-0-2) went 4-1 against the Broncos (3-3-1) last season, including a sweep at Magness arena and a 3-1 win in the NCHC tournament. Denver is defending the Julie and Spencer Penrose Cup as league champion, won in dominant fashion with a 20-4-3 record in 2016-17.

Western Michigan has started the season on an inconsistent streak. After a 2-2-1 start, the Broncos split with in-state rival Michigan State last weekend. Like the Pioneers, this weekend will also open NCHC play for WMU.

The team is coming off one of its best seasons in decades in which it won 21 games, 13 in the NCHC, and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The program’s turnaround from a eight win season in 2015-16 earned Broncos coach Andy Murray the NCHC Herb Brooks Coach of the Year Award. After losing some key pieces, the team was picked to finish sixth in the league during the preseason, ahead of only Omaha and Colorado College.

Junior forward Colt Conrad leads the Broncos with 11 points (7G, 5A), tied for fifth in the nation. Despite having a record below .500, WMU has been above average statistically — averaging 3.14 goals per game (20th in the nation) and allowing 2.57 (24th). They also boast average special teams units, converting at 17.8 percent on the power play (35th) and killing 83.3% of penalties (27th).

DU’s high-powered offense will face a challenge against sophomore goaltender Ben Blacker, who has proven himself to be one of the top goalies in the NCHC. His .918 save percentage is identical to Denver’s Tanner Jaillet, although Blacker has played in seven games to Jaillet’s five. After a stellar freshman campaign a year ago (17 wins, .915 save percentage, 2.55 GAA), he joined Henrik Borgström on the NCHC All-Rookie Team and also earned NCHC Honorable Mention distinction.

It will be important for the Pioneers to come out of this weekend with a pair of wins, given the brutal schedule ahead. Denver will see teams currently ranked in the top ten the next three weeks — #2 St. Cloud State, a revenge series against #4 North Dakota and a title game rematch at #8 Minnesota Duluth. Going into that stretch with as much momentum as possible means taking care of the Broncos on the road this weekend.

Both games will drop at 5:05 MT and can be seen by NCHC.tv subscribers.