A hockey season is a long and winding road through a mountainous countryside. There are the peaks and the valleys, the smooth sailing and the treacherous stretches, and for the Denver Pioneers, this season has been no different.
After being ranked No. 2 in the NCHC preseason polls, the Pios opened the season at 8-0 and peaked at No. 1 in the polls and stayed there until the middle of November. The open of conference play, however, caused troubles for Denver, which went on an 0-3-2 stretch against its conference foe. That slump led to Pioneers falling to eighth in NCAA’s rankings.
The team didn’t let the added pressure of a poor early-season performance get to them, however.
“I thought the guys handled it great,” said DU head coach David Carle of the team’s early mid-season slump. “We were always real honest with our performance…Anytime you lace them up and you’re done at the end of the night, you have an opportunity to evaluate yourself and look in the mirror. I think that stretch allowed us to do that in a real honest way and we’re starting to see the fruits of that labor and that adversity come out.”
As coach Carle alluded to, as the end of the season’s first half approached, DU began to hit its stride as the calendar flipped to December.
“I think it’s gone good,” said senior forward Liam Finlay of Denver’s season thus far. “Overall, I think we have a good record right now. We hit a rut obviously in November but now we’re getting out of it. Our practices are better — I guess our swagger’s back a bit now, and I think we’re rolling in the right direction now.”
When asked how important that “swagger” is to the Pioneers squad, Finlay says it’s invaluable.
“It’s everything,” he said. “Confidence is everything in sports is huge and the second a team has the swagger, watch out.”
The NCHC has been put on alert, as the Pios have their swagger back and have recently risen to top-five in the polls. The team knows, however, that there are things that need to be improved upon has the most important time of the year rapidly approaches.
“We’ve dug ourselves a bit of a hole in the NCHC standings and hopefully we can get on a bit of a run here and climb back up,” said junior defenseman and Denver captain Ian Mitchell. “Hopefully we can win the Penrose and the NCHC title and then the national championship — that’s our goal for the second-half.”
The Penrose is awarded to the regular-season champions of the NCHC. As it stands now, DU sits third in the conference standings and have a bit of a hill to climb to reach the NCHC-leading University of North Dakota, which sits a handful of points ahead of Denver.
Taking it game by game, how do the Pios achieve that goal?
“I think the biggest thing is playing to our identity,” said head coach David Carle. “That starts with playing without the puck, it’s our puck pressure, taking away time and space. There were some moments in the first half but it was too inconsistent throughout our lineup. The last five games it’s been there for us and it has to be there for us and be the staple of our game moving forward.”
Captain Mitchell agrees with his coach, when the team is on its game, they are defensively responsible.
“When we are playing well, our forecheck is relentless on teams; we’re creating turnovers below their dots and I think that’s the biggest thing when we are playing well,” added Mitchell. “Kudos to our forwards to being aggressive like that.”
Defense has been a strength for DU all season long. The team ranks seventh in the NCAA in fewest-goals allowed and is tops in the NCHC with a remarkable 91-percent penalty-kill rate (fifth in the NCAA).
While the team’s PK unit has been great, it’s been working harder than it should have to. The Pioneers have given the most power-play opportunities to opponents (83) since the start of the season, the most in the conference.
“Penalties has always kind of been a thing this season — we’ve taken some undisciplined ones,” said Mitchell. “That’s definitely hurt us a lot. I think our power play could always be better too. I think we could win some more games too with just our effectiveness on the special teams.”
The halfway mark of the season is a great opportunity for teams to look back on what they’ve accomplished and how they can improve entering the second-half push.
“If you evaluate it, you want the first half to be an opportunity to come together as a team and learn about yourselves, and I think that the first half did that for us. Then you got to take what you learn and apply that to the second half and try to be playing your best hockey when the best time of year comes around, which is playoffs,” said Carle.
“Really we’re just at the starting point of the second half and I think we’ve learned a lot in the first half and have taken some good things from it that have already helped us and will continue to help us here in the second half.”
The second half will be a big one for DU, which has a great opportunity in hosting the West Regionals of the NCAA Tournament at Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, Colo. Getting there, however, is never a guarantee.
“It’s very exciting, but we have to get there first,” agrees Mitchell. “When we do we’ll get to play in front of our fans in Loveland. We’re excited about that and it hopefully gives us an advantage over the other guys.”
“It’s going to be a great opportunity for our fans to see us play in the tournament but we’re not really thinking about that right now,” adds Carle. “For us, it’s taking what we learned in the first half and applying that to the second half and focusing on our process, taking it game by game as we continue to build.”
With just a dozen or so games left, Denver’s sprint to the finish line is underway. And with the team re-gaining its swagger, Finlay says the ceiling for this team is “limitless,” while coach Carle says there’s really one goal in mind.
“Win a national championship.”