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DU Pioneers prepare to take on defending national champions

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The top-ranked Denver team faces its toughest challenge this weekend, taking on the defending back-to-back champions in Minnesota Duluth

NCAA HOCKEY: APR 08 Frozen Four Final - Minnesota-Duluth v Denver Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Roughly five miles down the road from the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche lives another powerhouse hockey team in the form of the University of Denver Pioneers. While the former may garner a lion’s share of the attention, it’s the latter that deserves some more of its due diligence.

For the fourth week in a row now the DU Pioneers are ranked the No. 1 team in college hockey. Denver is off to a perfect 8-0-1 season thus far, the second-best start to a year in the program’s 70-year history. A win this evening would set a new program record for best start to a season, as the Pios will finish their two-game weekend series against the No. 7-ranked Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs (3-3-1) in Duluth tonight.

Last night, Denver took charge early, jumping up to a 2-0 lead and then a 3-1 lead before the Bulldogs barked back to tie the game with 31 seconds left in the game to force overtime. The two teams couldn’t solve each other’s riddle in the OT period and took it to the shootout, where DU was able to best Minnesota to get the extra point in the NCHC standings. Though Denver technically “won” the game, per NCAA rules, if a game is decided in a shootout, it counts as a tie in the standings with an extra point going to the team that wins the shootout.

Despite what the records may indicate, this certainly won’t be an easy matchup for the visiting Pios, as was proved in last night’s contest. While Duluth is off to a slower start on the year, nevertheless, the Bulldogs are still the defending national champions, having won that title the last two years in a row.

NCAA HOCKEY: APR 13 Div I Men’s Championship Game - Massachusetts v Minnesota Duluth

“To me they’re the No. 1 team in the country until they’re not anymore,” second-year head coach David Carle told me after practice on Thursday. “They’ve went out and talked the talk and walked the walk and they’ve got a lot of guys back from last years team, a lot of their D-core; their starting goaltender is back.”

Having only graduated three of its seniors from last year’s squad, like Carle said, Duluth is returning much of its championship(s)-winning team. That said, Denver can expect a championship-caliber Duluth team this weekend.

“They didn’t lose much from last year. They’re the same team that I’ve played the last couple years. They got a lot of the same guys, a lot of the same talent,” said senior Michael Davies in agreement with his coach. “They’re very similar to us, I think. They’re fast, they push the pace of the play a lot. We’re going to have to try and do the same thing that they’re going to try to do us, to them. It’s really going to be who’s winning the little battles in these games because there’s a lot of skill on the ice, a lot of speed, so the little one-on-one battles are going to make a difference.”

After suffering two straight losses against the No. 17 Wisconsin Badgers, a team that boasts such NHL talent as 2019 first-round picks Alex Turcotte (No. 5 overall to Los Angeles) and Cole Caulfield (No. 15 overall to Montreal), Minnesota is starting to find their footing. The team swept its weekend series against intrastate rival in the No. 20-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers.

“They’re a team that has in the past has struggled to find their footing early on in the season, but it doesn’t change what they are,” added Carle. “You saw last weekend, they swept Minnesota. They’re starting to find their stride. It’s going to be two really good games.”

This weekend’s matchup should be a pretty even one. Both teams boast a balanced attack between “veteran” upperclassmen and wily freshmen and sophomores. Both DU and Minnesota have 10 upperclassmen on its roster, while Denver has a few more underclassmen on its team.

The Pios will likely rely on one of its freshmen, in particular, to backstop the way. DU’s 19-year-old Magnus Chrona is having a break-out season for the Pioneers. Chrona, a Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick (fifth round, 2018), owns a rock-solid 1.86 goals-against average heading into the weekend series, the best among freshmen goaltenders. The Stockholm, Sweden native is also carrying with him a nice .925 save percentage.

Denver will also rely heavily on its captain this weekend. Junior defenseman Ian Mitchell leads the team with 10 points on the year and paces the NCHC with seven assists. Mitchell offered his scouting report on what he’s seen from the defending national champs.

“They play hard, they play very similar to us, they reload hard and they don’t give you a lot of offense — everything you get has to be earned,” said Mitchell. “It’s going to be a hard game. The way you score against them is by working hard, crash the net and bury pucks that way. It’s not going to be pretty hockey but it’s going to be a fun weekend.”

The Pioneers have an opportunity to prove to the NCAA that they are the real deal this weekend. One win against the back-to-back defending national champs would silence the doubters. Taking both games in Minnesota would not only push the team’s record to 10-0 on the year, which would set a new program record for best start to a season, it would also thrust the team into a category of serious National Championship-contender potential.

The weekend series concludes on Saturday at 6 p.m. MST.