As if postseason hockey weren’t high-stakes enough, a third series with your in-state arch rival is sure to bring an extra edge. Make it the second time in two years that you faced that rival in this position — hoping to kick off a month-long run to defend your national title — and you’ve turned up the pressure to what the Denver Pioneers will face this weekend.
The first round of the NCHC tournament kicks off Friday, one week later than all of the other conferences in Division I college hockey. For the #4 Denver Pioneers, who locked up the second seed in the tournament, that means at least two more games with seventh-seeded Colorado College.
The teams faced off four times during the season, as they always do. The results were mixed — after back-to-back ties in early December in which each team earned an extra point with respective 3-on-3 overtime goals, the Pioneers claimed the Gold Pan with a dominant 5-1 win in Colorado Springs on Feb. 16. But the night after, the Tigers snapped a 17-game winless streak against DU with a 1-0 win at Magness Arena.
CC came out on the very bottom of a logjam at spots 4-7 in the NCHC standings. While North Dakota narrowly claimed the last spot granting home-ice advantage with 33 points, Omaha, Western Michigan and CC finished with 31 points each. Finishing seventh was a one-seed improvement from last year for the Tigers, who nevertheless find themselves facing a tall task with DU in the first round once again. In 2017, Denver swept the first round series with wins of 4-0 and 4-1 to cruise into the semifinals.
CC is led by former Colorado Rampage standout Nick Halloran, who finished the season tied for sixth in the nation with 44 points (19 G, 25 A). Halloran earned himself a spot on the NCHC All-Conference First Team, which was announced earlier this week. The Pioneers led all teams with four players honored — Henrik Borgstrom and Tanner Jaillet on the First Team and Troy Terry and Dylan Gambrell on the second. CC’s Mason Bergh (37 points) earned Honorable Mention recognition.
Also announced in advance of the first round were the finalists for the regular season awards. Borgstrom and Halloran both are candidates for Forward of the Year, while CC’s Mike Haviland is a finalist for the Herb Brooks Coach of the Year Award. Other DU finalists include Borgstrom for Player of the Year, Jaillet for Goaltender of the Year and Ian Mitchell for Rookie of the Year.
A key storyline to watch coming into the series is the health of Jaillet, who was pulled from DU’s final regular season game after a collision in front of the net. It appeared as though the move was just precaution, as Jaillet finished out the remainder of the first period after the hit before spending the rest of the game on the bench. Jaillet’s stellar season earned him a finalist nod for the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goaltender, of which he would be the first ever two-time winner. Jaillet’s good health, first and foremost, and performance is paramount if DU wants to take care of business this weekend and make a deep postseason run.
Friday and Saturday’s contests are scheduled for 7:00 PM MT. Sunday, if necessary, will be a 6:00 PM puck drop. All three can be heard live on ESPN Denver 1600.