Minnesota Duluth and Denver have met in the postseason four of the previous five seasons, including each of the last three springs.
The two most recent meetings were in the 2018 and 2019 NCHC Frozen Faceoff semifinals at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, and the showdown that still stands out in most college hockey minds is Denver's win in the 2017 NCAA championship at United Center in Chicago.
With playoff history such as that — not to mention the 2015 first-round NCHC series the Pioneers swept in Denver — one might expect a firey, if not chippy, battle between the two-time defending national champion Bulldogs and undefeated, No. 1-ranked Pioneers to open NCHC play at 7:07 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at Amsoil Arena.
Or maybe not?
“The relationship is really respectful,” said second-year coach David Carle, a member of the Pioneers’ staff now for 10-plus seasons. “We both appreciate how the other does their business. There’s no bad blood. I think we really enjoy playing each other because we feel we make each other better and they are going to be clean, fast, hard hockey games. There’s not a lot of time and space.”
The numbers back up how clean this rivalry has been the last three seasons as games between the two have averaged just 15.5 penalty minutes per game.
The scoring has been just as low with Denver holding a 27-25 (or 2.08-1.92 average) advantage in the 13 games played since the start of the 2016-17 season.
Where things get lopsided is the record. Denver has won nine of the last 13 contests, including seven in a row between April 8, 2017 and Nov. 16, 2018. The Bulldogs have won three of the last four, including a 3-0 victory in last year’s NCHC semifinals at Xcel.
“They've had the upper upper hand. It was nice for us last year to get the last one in the tournament,” said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin, who also wasn’t shy this week about the respect he has for the Pioneers, going back to coaches Jim Montgomery and George Gwozdecky. “I like the way they do things. They recruit for the way they play, like a lot of teams, and they get the players in there that can play that way. They don't seem to miss a beat.”
The Pioneers were an overtime goal away from facing the Bulldogs in the 2019 NCAA championship in Buffalo, N.Y., and they, indeed, have not missed a beat thus far. They’re 8-0 after sweeps of Alaska, Lake Superior State, Boston College and Niagara, and they are averaging four-plus goals per game after an average of 2.80 per game a year ago, even after graduating Bulldog-killer and leading scorer Jared Lukosevicius.
Senior forward Tyson McLellan and freshman forward Bobby Brink each have four goals this year, but Carle said junior defenseman Ian Mitchell — who is very much in the mold of Bulldogs junior defenseman Scott Perunovich — has been the catalyst on offense with his three goals and seven assists.
Defensively, the Pioneers are just as stingy as ever, giving up an average of 1.62 goals per game. That might be more of a surprise than the increased scoring considering goalie Filip Larsson signed with the Detroit Red Wings in the offseason after just one season at DU and junior Devin Cooley is injured to start the year.
Instead, the Pioneers are excelling with rookie Magnus Chrona, who has a .925 save percentage, 1.86 goals against average and two shutouts in seven starts. Sophomore Michael Corson, the team’s third stringer, even has a shutout in his one start, making 16 saves last Friday against Niagara.
“Best team in the country. … They got a little bit of everything,” said Sandelin, whose team is 3-3. “They would have been my pick as a coach to win the league and the front runner to win the whole thing based on last year and what they had returning. Now you look eight games in what they filled in with and they might be a better team, certainly if they continue to get the goaltending they're getting.”
The seventh-ranked Bulldogs — very uncharacteristically — have given up (2.50 goals per game average) more than they’ve scored thus far (2.33) as early injuries have exposed a lack of depth at forward.
The return of freshman wing Quinn Olson gave the Bulldogs an immediate boost two weeks ago in the sweep of Minnesota as he was able to pick up his first collegiate goal and assist. Sophomore wing Tanner Laderoute also should be back in the lineup this weekend after missing three games due to injury, like Olson.
The Bulldogs need all the bodies they can get — with just sophomore defenseman Hunter Lellig out for the foreseeable future — to get a jump start on Denver in the race for the Penrose Cup.
It’s likely the margin of error will be thin as it always is in this series. Eight of the last 13 games have been decided by a goal, empty net goals pushed three games to two-goal margins and another — last year’s NCHC semifinal — to three.
“They’re a team you need your best every night,” UMD senior defenseman and co-captain Nick Wolff said. “They’re the No. 1 team in the country and they play like it every night. To show up and not give it your all and not execute plays, that’s going to lead to a loss.”