After a pair of 1-1 home ties against Notre Dame over the first week of January, the Denver Pioneers sat at 6-6-4 on the year. Since that series, they have lost just two games, one of which was the semifinal in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff against eventual conference champion St. Cloud State.
With 7-2 and 6-3 wins on Saturday and Sunday against Boston University and Ferris State, respectively, the Pioneers are off to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2005, when they captured their second of back-to-back national championships.
Denver has made nine straight appearances in the NCAA tournament, but had failed to advance past the regionals each of the first eight times.
What went right for Denver in the second half that has it threatening for the program’s eighth national championship?
The biggest reason has been the emergence of its special teams.
At even strength, with its Pacific Rim line of Danton Heinen, Dylan Gambrell and Trevor Moore, plus puck-moving defenseman Will Butcher, it can match just about any team in college hockey.
The Pioneers’ depth is also exemplary, and they can roll at least three, if not all four lines as well as anyone. But in the first half, Denver struggled on special teams, both with the extra skater and without.
When the calendar turned, the Pioneers were noticeably better on both sides of special teams, and it showed, particularly in their games against BU and Ferris State, especially the power play. Denver went 2-for-4 both nights in the West Regional, and Butcher’s second power-play goal of the game stood as the clincher against the Terriers on Saturday.
Heinen and Butcher lead the way with four power-play goals each for Denver, followed by Gambrell, Moore, Troy Terry and Matt Marcinew with three apiece. Several others have two tallies with the extra skater.
They only went 3-for-5 on the penalty kill in those games, but both were allowed to Ferris State on Sunday, and both were game-tying goals for the Bulldogs. If Denver cleans up its PK the way it was operating in the second half, it should pose as much of a threat as either of the other three teams in the Frozen Four.
The Pioneers also relatively lethal on the penalty kill, posting five shorthanded goals this year, including two from Quentin Shore. This combination will make them dangerous in Tampa.
Overall, Denver carries a power play that has converted at 19 percent and a penalty kill that has succeeded 82 of the time into the Frozen Four. The power play ranks 23rd in the country, but is the least effective of the four remaining teams. It’s penalty kill is 31st, and is likewise the lowest-ranking in the Frozen Four field.
Goaltender Tanner Jaillet may end up being the difference in Tampa for the Pioneers. But there is no doubt the Pioneers will be heading to Florida because of their recent uptick in special teams, especially the power play during their second half run and their two blowout wins in the West Regional.