MINNEAPOLIS-After putting aside a tough loss to No. 11 North Dakota in the NCHC semifinals, the No. 1 Denver Pioneers avoided injury, finished the tournament on a high note and can now shift their focus to the tournament that matters most.
A tournament in which they will be the top overall seed thanks to a 3-1 victory over No. 8 Western Michigan on Saturday night at the Target Center.
“It’s a good accomplishment. You want to give yourself the easiest road possible in the first round,” said Pioneers head coach Jim Montgomery. “We’ve done that, and now we gotta get to work.”
Colin Staub scored twice and Evan Cowley made 28 saves for the Pioneers, who won for the 14th time in their last 15 games despite sitting top goaltender Tanner Jaillet, forwards Henrik Borgstrom, Dylan Gambrell and Troy Terry and defensemen Adam Plant and Will Butcher. A win like this sends them into the NCAA Tournament with plenty of momentum.
“A good team win today. I think it illustrated the depth we have at Denver,” said Montgomery. “We’re here to win a national championship now after yesterday’s loss; [we didn’t want to] risk injury.”
Mike McKee had a goal for Western Michigan, but it wasn’t nearly enough against a Denver offense determined to put Friday night’s shutout loss behind them.
“Certainly a disappointing game for our team, with what was at stake today,” said Broncos coach Andy Murray, as his team could have clinched a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a victory.
But a short memory is what his team needs now.
“We’ve got a week to sort things out and play the type of game we’ve played all year,” he said.
A tough defense also prevented WMU from setting up decent chances, as Aaron Hadley stated after the game.
“They came out from the drop of the puck,” Hadley said. “We just need to be better and harder on the forecheck.”
After a mostly uneventful first half of the opening period, the Broncos’ Neal Goff was sent off for tripping and Denver cashed in with a power-play tally by Colin Staub.
Western Michigan evened things up with McKee’s backhand goal five and a half minutes into the second period, but Liam Finlay launched a twisted wrister from the high slot just over a minute later, putting the Pioneers up 2-1 after two periods. It was an important goal at the time for Denver because Western Michigan was starting to get more scoring chances.
“[Finlay] was recruited to be a dynamic offensive player, someone who can take you out of your seats,” Montgomery said.
Staub capped the game’s scoring with a late third-period goal.
Now that Denver is the top overall seed, they await where they will play next week when the tournament. However, Montgomery doesn’t sound too keen on traveling very far.
“I don’t think the No. 1 seed should go farther east than Cincinnati, and if we do, I’ll be really disappointed,” he said.
Forward Evan Janssen knows they have to right a few wrongs if they intend to make noise and return to the Frozen Four for the second year in a row, and according to him it starts with practice and leadership.
“I think it’s on us as seniors to make sure we lead and make sure we have a good practice,” he said.
Ben Blacker finished with 18 saves for the Broncos.
DU PP goal at 8:33: Staub 7. Assists: Michael Davies 9 and Blake Hillman 6.
WMU goal at 5:29: McGee 2. Assists: Aaron Hadley 8 and Griffen Molino 17.
DU goal at 6:37: Finlay 8. Assists: Tyson McLellan 7 and Evan Janssen 17.
DU goal at 14:42: Staub 8, 2nd of game. Assist: Jarid Lukosevicius 16.
Power plays: WMU 0-4, DU 1-4.
Shots on goal: WMU 29, DU 21.