Denver’s mediocre record not fooling men’s hockey team

Adam Fink

The biggest difference Denver men’s hockey coach George Gwozdecky sees between last season’s WCHA regular season and playoff champions and this year’s fifth-place squad is the number of injuries.

The 12th-ranked Pioneers (20-9-5, 11-8-5 WCHA) have been saddled with injuries up and down the lineup, most notably at goaltender where All-American Wade Dubielewicz has played in only 16 games.

“Looking back at last year, we were relatively healthy the whole season,” Denver’s ninth-year coach said. “This year, it’s been the exact opposite. We can’t seem to get healthy.”

Heading into this weekend’s series at Minnesota, Denver is fully healthy for the first time this year. And with a full complement of players comes higher expectations.

Gwozdecky said, beginning with tonight’s opener at Mariucci Arena, the Pioneers must win three of their four remaining games in order to hold on to fifth place in the conference, and thus claim home-ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

“We need the six points,” Gwozdecky said, whose team also plays top-ranked Colorado College March 7-8. “The team knows what’s at stake. We’ve had a target on our back all year. It’s time to start playing up to our capabilities.”

For Denver, winning starts with defending – an area in which the Pioneers excel. The two-headed goaltending tandem of Dubielewicz, and Adam Berkhoel is ranked one and two in saves percentage.

The duo is highly regarded throughout the league and in Denver’s past four games (3-0-1) the tandem has allowed nine goals on 92 shots.

While Berkhoel, who will start tonight, and Dubielewicz, who gets the nod Saturday, are key to the Pioneers defense success, senior center Kevin Doell opens the doors to the offense.

Doell’s 45 points lead the team but it’s his recent play that has turned heads. In the past four games, the Saskatchewan native has tallied nine points.

“He gets the puck a lot and has quick hands,” Gwozdecky said. “Hopefully he has reserved his best for the final games.”

Although containing Doell is on the defensive “to-do” list, the Gophers are also thinking about the things they can’t control.

The intangible Minnesota is most concerned about is the frantic mentality Denver is playing with right now.

“Desperate teams always are scary,” junior Matt Koalska said. “They can’t afford a setback.”

Coach Don Lucia knows what Denver is going through. The Gophers endured a string of injuries earlier in the year, and as defending national champions, also carry a target on their backs.

However, Minnesota’s coach thinks along a different line than Koalska.

“We are just as desperate,” said Lucia, whose team sits in third place. “I will be disappointed if we don’t finish in the standing at least in the spot where we are now.”

Points are critical and with both coaches setting standards for the final four games of the season, something has to budge.

Game time tonight is 7:05 p.m.

Who’s in, who’s out

Sophomore Jerrid Reinholz has returned from a shoulder injury and is expected to play this weekend.

Garret Smaagaard, who tallied his first two goals of the season last weekend, will play Friday and is likely for Saturday.

“He is playing his way into the lineup,” Lucia said.

Joey Martin, out with the flu last weekend, is expected to play at defense this weekend. Travis Weber should start in goal Friday night.

Winning the title

Colorado College is two points away from earning at least a share of the MacNaughton Cup, given to the WCHA regular-season champion.

But to get the title, the Tigers must defeat Minnesota State-Mankato, who is seeking a share of their first title since joining the league.

The two games between the first and second place team in the conference is this weekend’s biggest series and will likely determine the conference regular season champion.

This is the last series of the season for the Mavericks, who are riding a 17-game unbeaten streak and are idle next weekend. If Minnesota State-Mankato sweeps at Colorado Springs, the Mavericks would need help from Denver to win the title outright.

Adam Fink covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]