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Denver Pioneers weekend preview: NCHC Frozen Faceoff

Will DU be crowned the champion of college hockey’s toughest conference?

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

For the Denver Pioneers, last weekend featured a first-round scare against a Colorado College team that has given DU some trouble this season despite not being NCAA tournament-bound. Paradoxically, DU advanced past the Tigers to now face a much better opponent, but one they’ve looked much more comfortable against — Minnesota-Duluth, an NCAA tournament lock.

In fact, Denver has a solid 7-1-3-3 record against the other three teams joining them in St. Paul this weekend for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff. Four of those regulation wins came in four tries against Minnesota Duluth, a dominant streak that started when Denver defeated the Bulldogs to win the national championship in Chicago last season.

While UMD will be out for revenge after against a team that’s had their number for an entire year, Denver has a loss of its own to avenge. Despite being the league’s regular season champion in 2016-17, DU failed to advance past the semifinals of the postseason tournament with a loss to North Dakota. The semifinals have given the Pioneers fits going back a few years, as they have won just once (2014) in four trips.

UMD’s rise from a mediocre start to the season to a top-10 team has been facilitated by a drastic improvement in their offensive firepower. The Bulldogs were 54th in the country at 2.35 goals per game throughout the first half of the season. Since then, their 3.89 goals per game ranks second. This turnaround has been complimented by a balance of capable scorers across the UMD lineup. Led by freshman defenseman Scott Perunovich (34 points) and forward Peter Kreiger (30) the Bulldogs have five more players with at least 20.

UMD has also been remarkably successful on special teams throughout the year, converting 24.7 percent of their power play chances (6th best in the country) and killing 84.7% of their penalties (9th).

The semifinal matchup will feature two of the nation’s top goaltenders in Denver’s Tanner Jaillet and UMD’s Hunter Shepard, both finalists for the Mike Richter Award. Shepard has totaled 21 wins on the season while allowing 1.91 goals per game with a .927 save percentage.

It was also announced this week that Denver’s star forward Henrik Borgström is among the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award. Borgström has surpassed his scoring output from a stellar freshman season with 21 goals and 28 assists.

Friday’s semifinal will be broadcast on CBS sports starting at 6:30 PM MT. The winner will play in the championship game at 6:30 on Saturday while the loser will play for third at 2:30.