Gophers to host hot Denver squad

Michael Rand

The expectations were clear, and the talent appeared to be in place.
This was going to be the year Denver, Minnesota’s opponent this weekend at Mariucci Arena, broke through as a legitimate WCHA contender instead of being a sometimes pleasant surprise.
Picked below only Colorado College and Minnesota in a preseason poll by league coaches, Denver had the experience and depth at key positions to achieve elite status.
When the season started, however, the Pioneers stumbled and slipped like a pack of drunks in a blizzard. Their 1-5 start in the WCHA sent them straight to the bottom of the standings instead of the top.
Like a kid waking up this Christmas and finding a three-pack of Fruit of the Looms where a Tickle-Me-Elmo doll was supposed to be, the Pioneers were stunned, their hopes crushed.
“The expectations definitely affected us,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “We’ve been used to playing the role of underdog, not one of the favorites. Being the underdog is much easier.”
Fortunately for Denver, the season was still young. After banging their heads against the wall long enough, the Pioneers finally woke up. Since dropping a pair of games to Colorado College in early November, the team has gone 8-1-3.
Gwozdecky said his team may have taken things for granted early in the season. After being humbled by teams gunning at a first-place hopeful, the Pioneers no longer had that problem.
“We’re playing much better as a team right now. A lot of players were playing an individualistic style early on,” Gwozdecky said. “Then all of the sudden we got to the point where it was getting serious, that we needed to start playing well. Because of that re-thinking process, we’ve been able to turn it around.”
If this year were like most others in the WCHA, the Pioneers would have been a distant memory even in spite of their comeback.
Although Denver hasn’t climbed too far in the standings yet — it is tied for sixth with Minnesota-Duluth — it’s only six points out of first place in the tightly packed league.
“Because of the balance in the league this year, we’ve been fortunate to stay close despite not playing well early on,” Gwozdecky said.
The bunched-up standings leave little margin of error for the Gophers and Pioneers this weekend.
A sweep for either team would be enormous, as it could vault Minnesota into first place or help Denver spring into the upper-half of the standings.
“There are so many people in the pack right now,” Gophers coach Doug Woog said. “If you don’t take care of business, there will be too many teams to climb over.”
The series is also important symbolically for the two teams.
Last year, in the midst of its 19-game unbeaten streak, Minnesota won a pair of early January games at Denver. The Gophers went 8-0 that month and wound up in the NCAA tournament.
The Pioneers entered the series with only three losses, and they were fresh off a victory over Colorado College in the championship game of the Denver Cup. After Minnesota swept them, the Pioneers never recovered. They failed to reach the NCAA tournament, a berth that once seemed like a sure thing.
“We were still celebrating well into the series with Minnesota last year. By the time we woke up, the series was over, and we had lost,” Gwozdecky. “It was the Gophers series last year that started our downward spiral.”
As Gwozdecky says, January has not been a good month for Denver in past seasons. Surprisingly, however, the Pioneers have had success at Minnesota. They have won three of their last four against the Gophers at Mariucci Arena, including a sweep two years ago.
“Mariucci is a great place to play, and it’s also a tough place to play,” Gwozdecky said. “Our guys like playing there. It gives players the aura of a big-time atmosphere.”
With so much on the line, there should definitely be that type of atmosphere in the building this weekend.
“It’s a pivotal weekend,” Gophers defenseman Mike Crowley said. “Hopefully, we can go in and get two wins.”

Notes: In addition to defenseman Brian LaFleur and goaltender Erik Day, who are both out with long-term injuries, the Gophers will also be without freshman forward Cory Miller, who has a minor shoulder sprain.
Tom Nevers expects to play in his first career regular season game as a member of the Gophers this weekend. Nevers, who recently signed a contract with baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals, will be leaving the Gophers soon. He has been with the team for two years. Nevers will wear number 16 and likely play on the fourth line in Friday night’s game.