Last night’s showdown in Denver between the DU Pioneers and Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs was the obvious highlight of the night’s college hockey schedule, and it certainly lived up to expectations. It was a wild showdown between the top team in the Pairwise Rankings (UMD) and No. 3 Denver, but more importantly, a showdown between two teams who expect to be playing in Chicago this April.
And appropriately, the game felt like a Frozen Four matchup, a fiery contest that followed a week of, at times, sub-zero temperatures in the Mile High City. Denver overcame a first goal deficit for the fifth time in less than a month, extended its unbeaten streak to 15 games (12-0-3), and held off the Bulldogs in a chaotic final minute to secure a 4-3 win.
After the game, Denver coach Jim Montgomery used the word ‘relentless’ repeatedly in describing his team’s performance.
Said Montgomery, “If you look at the success we have had here, it’s always because of our relentless pursuit of pucks and getting on the right side — continuing to go at people, forcing people to make tough decision with pressure on top of them.”
That’s precisely what Denver did, particularly during a five minute span in the second period, when the score turned from 1-0 in favor of UMD to 3-1 in favor of the Pioneers. It started with freshman Kevin Conley gaining inside position in the crease on UMD senior Dan Molenaar — collecting a Colin Staub pass to score his first career goal — and it ended with a Dylan Gambrell no-look pass from behind the net to Troy Terry, who converted a dizzying backhand shot in front of UMD netminder Hunter Miska, sending the Magness Arena crowd into a frenzy.
Terry also had two assists in the game and is now tied with standout defenseman Will Butcher for the team lead in points.
And Conley’s important contribution was, yes, ‘relentless’. And a reward for Montgomery’s ‘process.’
“He’s one of those freshmen who hasn’t been rewarded for all the chances he’s had,” said Montgomery. “It’s hard when you don’t score goals to keep believing in the process, but he played relentless hockey tonight.”
The reality is that offensive players — on any team — get most of the attention and certainly most of the accolades. But watch any Denver game, and it’s clear that the most ‘relentless’ aspect is its defense. Five of the six blueliners in the lineup last night have played in all 17 games this season. The other, sophomore Blake Hillman, has played in 16. It was Hillman’s turnover in the first period while exiting the defensive zone that led to UMD’s Alex Iaffalo opening the scoring.
“It was really hard for me to bite my lip when he came back to the bench,” said Montgomery of Hillman. “I just went up to him and said, ‘Look, he’s the first forechecker. Even if you get by him, there are still four more guys to go through. Let’s put it behind him and let our forwards work.'”
And that’s what the Pioneers did for the rest of the game. Relentlessly.
“That’s a hard team to gain offensive opportunities against because of they way they skate, the way they check, and their relentless pursuit of pucks,” said Montgomery. “A lot of players are gaining confidence, and we’re going to continue to get better throughout the year.”
The teams face off again tonight, as Denver looks to extend its unbeaten streak to 16 games. Check CHN this week for a full feature on the critical weekend series.