Denver was 7-7-2 at midseason but is 18-2-4 since.
But don’t label the Pioneers as the “hot” team heading into Thursday’s Frozen Four semifinal against North Dakota.
The Pioneers were in the West Region in St. Paul, Minn., and, to put it bluntly, they were “scared straight” by Ferris State, which stunned top-seeded St. Cloud State in its semifinal game and scored on two of its first three shots against Denver in the title game.
The Pioneers dominated Ferris State, but until they scored a pair of goals 25 seconds apart with five minutes remaining in the third period, they couldn’t shake the Bulldogs.
“To go into that first intermission tied at 2-2 after a period we completely dominated was nerve wracking,” Tanner Jaillet, the sophomore goalie said. “At this time of year every team will have a good goalie to make it this far. Anyone can beat anyone if you’re not on your A game.”
Close calls are great reminders on staying focused, but for Thursday’s matchup no other motivation may be needed for the Pioneers than the words “North Dakota.”
Game 6 between the two this season happens to be at the Frozen Four, adding to the rivalry.
The Pioneers and Fighting Hawks are 2-2-1 against each other this season, but Jaillet is 2-1 in net against them. His lone loss, 4-0, came in early December before the Pioneers started to jell.
Early in the season he split time in net with Evan Cowley, who was also in net for the 1-1 tie in the third-place game of the NCHC tournament.
When Jailet took over full-time duties, Denver started to roll.
He’s been in goal for the 24-game stretch that lifted the Pioneers into this week’s tournament. During that stretch run he’s carried a .929 save percentage and allowed just 1.99 goals per game. In that same time frame, UND goalie Cam Johnson, a Mike Richter Award finalist, has a 1.88 goals-against and .924 save percentage.
To say this is a battle of two of the heavyweights of college hockey programs is putting it lightly.
Denver has run its streak of 20-win seasons to 15 games, North Dakota is at 14. UND freshman Brock Boeser leads the field with 54 points, but Denver sophomore Danton Heinen has 48 and freshman Dylan Gambrell 47.
Boeser plays on the CBS Line with fellow NHL Draft first-round pick Nick Schmaltz and senior Drake Caggiula, the human highlight reel. Denver counters with the higher-scoring Pacific Rim Line of Heinen, Gambrell and Trevor Moore.
UND”s defense ranks third in the nation, but Denver defenseman Will Butcher is the tournament’s top-scoring defenseman with 31 points (third in the nation).
Jaillet expects to be busier between the pipes against UND than he was against Ferris State, and he said that helps goalies stay in the game. UND peppered Michigan with 45 shots on net in the Midwest Region title game.
“It’s hard when you’re not seeing much action,” he said. “It’s much more difficult to stay sharp when you’re seeing 15 shots instead of 40. Sometimes it can be a mental battle to stay in the game.”
The last time Denver and North Dakota met in the Frozen Four was the 2005 title game, which Denver won to repeat as national champion. It was the last time a team repeated as the national champion and the last time Denver advanced to the Frozen Four.
Both programs have won seven national titles, tied for second behind Michigan’s nine.
The one unknown for Denver, however, is the Pioneers are the only team in the tournament without a player who has Frozen Four experience.
Jaillet doesn’t care.
“This game is going to come down to the minor details and making the smart plays,” Jaillet said. “We’re both solid in a lot of the same areas. I will say our bottom lines don’t get the credit they deserve. We’ve got some seniors who do a lot and they can be the difference.
“We’ve got a great rivalry against NoDak and while I respect them, that doesn’t mean I have to like them.”
Who’s your choice to win the Frozen Four?
Who is your choice to win the Frozen Four? Total Voters: 382
Who is your choice to win the Frozen Four?
Total Voters: 382