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Denver Pioneers at midseason: the good, the bad and the unknown

What do we know for sure about this team?

2016 NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Championships - Semifinals Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

As the University of Denver Pioneers take this weekend off for the holidays, the team sits roughly halfway done with their regular season schedule. Before the season started, myself and many others posed the question of whether this team was capable of repeating as national champions.

With 18 games in the books, do we have a clearer answer to that question?

The Good

What remains true about this Denver team is what most observers predicted all along heading into the season — they are one of the most talented teams in college hockey.

It seems silly because anyone who has watched the team knows this to be obvious, but it’s worth reminding ourselves how special Troy Terry and Henrik Borgström actually are.

Both have 24 points, although Borgström has played one fewer game than Terry. This is surely a Hobey Baker-worthy pace and the only thing that may hurt their chances at the end of the year is if they split the “Denver vote” between them.

What’s more impressive is that the pair rank as highly as they do (tied for 6th in the NCAA, tied for second in the NCHC) given that they’ve both gone on a scoring slump in December. Borgström has just two assists and has not scored in six December games, while Terry’s goal against Dartmouth Saturday was his first point in the entire month.

Even still, having the two of them on the ice presents all kinds of matchup problems for other teams. Forwards Dylan Gambrell (21 points), Colin Staub (13) and Jarid Lukosevicius (12) are as good of a supporting cast as any, and part of their offensive success and the team’s success overall (5th in NCAA team offense) has to do in large part with how teams are forced to handle Terry and Borgström.

Another bright spot has been some of DU’s freshman, who came in collectively as a highly-regarded class. Ian Mitchell (1 G, 12 A) has seen big minutes and has shown promise running the point on Denver’s top power play unit. Griffin Mendel has played on the blue line in all 18 games as well. Finally, Jake Durflinger (4 G, 4 A) and Jaakko Heikkinen (5 G, 2 A) have come up big in spots.

After starting off the year shaky, Denver’s penalty kill now sits at 15th-best in the country at 84.2 percent. The power play has been solid all year long and remains in the top five at 26 percent.

The Bad

One might think it would be hard to find many negative things to say about a team with all of the above characteristics. But despite their depth and skill, Denver has periodically lost games in baffling or downright embarrassing ways this season.

First was the team’s opening weekend of NCHC play, where the Pioneers fell flat on their face out of the gate. In the opening game Friday, Denver surrendered the tying and game-winning goal 15 seconds apart in the final 1:12 of the game after leading 5-4. Saturday somehow was worse, as Western Michigan scored five unanswered goals in the third period to erase a 4-2 Denver lead and win 7-4.

In total, Denver blew two leads and was outscored 8-2 in the third period combined.

The Pioneers lost a lead even later against rival Colorado College earlier this month, when the Tigers tied Friday’s game up with seven seconds to go. That game, and the next night’s contest, officially ended in ties, with each team earning respective extra points in the NCHC standings in 3-on-3 overtime.

And then there was the most recent debacle Saturday night against Dartmouth. Leading 3-0 after one period and after having shutout Dartmouth’s woeful offense the night before, Denver gave up five unanswered goals over the next two periods and eventually lost 5-4. Even after the win, Dartmouth ranks 56 out of 60 in the PairWise power rankings. They are a much worse team than either Western Michigan or Colorado College.

In a postgame interview with LetsGoDU, DU head coach Jim Montgomery called the loss “confusing” and “embarrassing.” More importantly, he called out his veterans, saying that the team’s younger players “weren’t the problem.”

The Unknown

All of this leaves DU fans and observers in a very confusing place heading into the second half of the regular season and postseason.

Even after the bad losses this team has produced, I still believe you’d have a hard time finding any follower of college hockey who has completely written this team off. They are simply too talented to be counted out.

That being said, when things go off the rails, it looks very, very bad. For Denver to make a run, there will be lots of close games in the NCHC playoffs and NCAA tournament they will have to win. That means digging in and defending a one-goal lead in the final minute or pressing down on a team if Denver gets a big early lead. They certainly won’t face a team as bad as Dartmouth in the postseason or during the rest of the regular season for that matter.

The first step to erasing these doubts will be for DU to get their big guns going again. Terry and Borgström at their best represent this team at their ceiling — like when they handed St. Cloud State their only regulation losses of the year in an easy sweep at Magness Arena in November. Being called out by their coach after a loss to one of the country’s worst teams should certainly help get a fire under them.

Even if Denver loses Troy Terry to the Olympics for a few weeks as expected, this team is good enough to make a run at the NCHC crown and enter the NCAA tournament hot. But if they crumble down the stretch, there certainly weren’t a lack of warning signs along the way.