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Denver Pioneers weekend preview: #1 St. Cloud State

It’s gut check time for the Pioneers after shaky start to NCHC play

2017 NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Championships - Semifinals Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After abdicating their top spot in the national rankings, the #3 Denver Pioneers couldn’t have a better opportunity to take it back. DU will host the now top-ranked and still undefeated St. Cloud State Huskies this weekend at Magness Arena.

The Pioneers never lost three games in a row during their championship 2016-17 season but will face a tall task in trying to avoid that this weekend after two crushing road losses against Western Michigan to open NCHC play. The Huskies earned all 50 first-place votes in the USCHO poll this week to displace the Pioneers. SCSU has stormed out of the gate to a 7-0-0 record, including 5-3 and 5-0 drubbings of #12 Minnesota Duluth to start conference play last weekend.

The Huskies boast the top team offense in the nation, averaging 4.71 goals per game. The team has managed that output with remarkable balance, with five players averaging a point per game or better led by junior defenseman Jimmy Schludt (5G 7A). DU isn’t far behind, with four players at a point per game or better and the fourth best team offense (4.12 goals/game).

But SCSU has put together a balanced statistical profile that the Pioneers have not matched to start the season. DU’s struggling penalty kill — ranked 54th at 72 percent — will have nowhere to hide against the Huskies’ third-ranked power play (32.25). Schludt runs the point with the man advantage and leads the team with three power-play goals. DU will have to be better after giving up a power-play goal in each loss against Western Michigan and in seven of eight games to start the year.

The Huskies have started two goalies this season, with sophomore Joe Smith and freshman David Hrenak splitting time. Smith has played a majority of the minutes and has been stellar (2 GAA, .930 save %). Hrenak shut out Minnesota Duluth on Saturday, making 29 saves.

The Pioneers went 3-1 against the Huskies last season, including a sweep in Denver. Getting themselves back on track will be key as the team faces two more ranked conference opponents in the following weeks in #2 North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth.