Last season, Denver lost a home league playoff series to rival Colorado College, missed out on the WCHA Final Five, and subsequently fired longtime head coach George Gwozdecky, he of the twelve straight 20+ win seasons, twelve NCAA tournament appearances, three MacNaughton Cups (WCHA regular season champion), four Broadmoor trophies (WCHA playoff champion), 443 career coaching victories at DU, and two national championships.

Not to mention all those dasher dances and temper tantrums.

Jim Montgomery is the new man behind the Denver bench, and despite not having coached at the NCAA level before, Montgomery has the Pios in position for a league title and a shot at an NCAA tournament bid. With all eight teams having played the same number of league games, DU is currently tied for second place (along with North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha ), two points back of St. Cloud State. SCSU is competing in the North Star College Cup (a non-conference tournament with Minnesota, Minnesota State, and Minnesota-Duluth), while UNO is idle this weekend.

In the NCHC, it is clear that Denver/North Dakota will be at the top of the league rivalries, and despite the two not having played yet this season, the schools clearly do not like each other. The feud goes all the way back to Geoff Paukovitch’ illegal check on Sioux forward Robbie Bina during the 2005 WCHA Final Five.

Since that game (a Denver victory), the two teams have met six times in tournament play. Denver won the 2005 NCAA title with a victory over North Dakota and claimed a 2008 WCHA Final Five win as well. UND has won the last four playoff games between the schools, including three consecutive victories in the WCHA Final Five (2010-2012) and the 2011 NCAA Midwest Regional final which sent the Fighting Sioux to the Frozen Four.

Both schools seem to get hit by the “early departure” bug each off-season. Over the last two years, North Dakota has had three players leave early. After the 2011-12 season, forward Brock Nelson (36-32-68 in 84 games) left after his sophomore campaign and goaltender Aaron Dell (49-20-5, 2.15 GAA, .912 SV%, 9 SO) gave up his final season of eligibility. And last year, defenseman Derek Forbort (6-39-45 in 115 games) signed after his junior season.

On the Denver side of the ledger, three Pioneers opted not to return after EACH of the last two seasons. Following the 2011-12 campaign, Drew Shore (50-68-118 in 123 games) gave up his senior season, while fellow forwards Jason Zucker (45-46-91 in 78 games) and Beau Bennett (13-25-38 in 47 games) left two years of eligibility on the table. And after last season, the Pios lost junior forward Nick Shore (34-59-93 in 116 games), sophomore defenseman Scott Mayfield (7-22-29 and 192 PIM in 81 games), and sophomore netminder Juho Olkinuora (22-14-8, 2.27 GAA, .926 SV%, 5 SO).

After struggling through his junior season and ultimately losing the job to Olkinhuora, DU senior goaltender Sam Brittain is looking more and more like his old self this year:

Last season (2012-13): 5-7-0 record, 2.95 goals-against average, .907 save percentage, 0 shutouts
This season (2013-14): 12-6-5 record, 1.95 goals-against average, .935 save percentage, 3 shutouts

Just when North Dakota was getting healthy up front, sophomore goaltender Zane Gothberg sustained an injury in practice and will be out indefinitely. Senior netminder Clarke Saunders will have to fill in during Gothberg’s absence. Saunders, who has been suspect at times this season (2-2-0, 3.60 GAA, .900 SV%), does have the ability to steal a game. Last season, the transfer from Alabama-Huntsville posted a record of 13-9-4 with a goals-against average of 2.30, a save percentage of .917, and two shutouts.

It’s a very small sample size, but Gothberg was awful in his only career start against Denver, allowing three goals on 22 shots (including two goals 25 seconds apart) before being pulled early in the second period. Saunders, on the other hand, is 3-2-1 with a 2.83 GAA and a .904 SV% in six appearances versus the Pios.

Saunders will have to be on his game if UND hopes to keep its nine game unbeaten streak (8-0-1) alive. Over that stretch, North Dakota has outscored opponents 29-16. By comparison, over its last nine games, Denver is just 4-2-3 while scoring 26 goals and allowing 24.

North Dakota senior defenseman Dillon Simpson is being promoted as a Hobey Baker candidate, but second-year blueliner Jordan Schmaltz (Simpson’s defensive partner) stands out to me. In my opinion, he is more of a flight risk than fellow sophomore Rocco Grimaldi, who leads the Green and White with 20 points in 22 games played.

Denver Team Profile

Head Coach: Jim Montgomery (1st season at DU, 12-7-5, .604)
Pairwise Ranking: 23rd
National Ranking: #16
This Season: 12-7-5 overall, 6-4-2-1 NCHC (t-2nd)
Last Season: 20-14-5 overall (NCAA Northeast Regional Semifinalist), 14-9-5 WCHA (t-4th)

Team Offense: 2.62 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.12 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 22.9% (24 of 105)
Penalty Kill: 88.6% (101 of 114)

Key Players: Freshman F Trevor Moore (9-10-19), Sophomore F Quentin Shore (6-13-19), Junior F Ty Loney (5-9-14), Junior D Joey LaLeggia (9-9-18), Senior D David Makowski (8-9-17), Senior G Sam Brittain (12-6-5, 1.95 GAA, .935 SV%, 3 SO)

North Dakota Team Profile

Head Coach: Dave Hakstol (10th season at UND, 247-126-40, .646)

Pairwise Ranking: 18th
National Ranking: #18
This Season: 12-7-3 overall, 7-5-0-0 NCHC (t-2nd)
Last Season: 22-13-7 overall (NCAA West Regional finalist), 14-7-7 WCHA (3rd)

Team Offense: 2.86 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.73 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 18.2% (18 of 99)
Penalty Kill: 82.1% (87 of 106)

Key Players: Sophomore F Rocco Grimaldi (8-12-20), Sophomore F Drake Caggiula (5-7-12), Sophomore F Michael Parks (6-9-15), Senior D Dillon Simpson (4-9-13), Sophomore D Jordan Schmaltz (2-10-12), Sophomore G Zane Gothberg (10-5-3, 2.26 GAA, .914 SV%)

By The Numbers

Last Meeting: February 23, 2013 (Denver, CO). After spotting the Pioneers a goal midway through the opening frame, North Dakota erupted for three first period goals and crushed Denver 6-1. Six different players scored for UND, and Denver starting goaltender Juho Olkinuora was pulled after allowing three goals on the first eight shots he faced. DU won Friday’s opener, 5-4.

Most Important Meeting: It’s hard to pick just one game, as the two teams have played four times for the national title. Denver defeated UND for the national championship in 1958, 1968, and 2005, while the Sioux downed the Pioneers in 1963. And two seasons ago, North Dakota defeated Denver in the WCHA Final Five championship game.

Last Ten Games: North Dakota has had the better of it lately, going 6-3-1 (.650) in the last ten meetings between the schools and outscoring Denver 38-25 over that span. The two teams have also met twice in the WCHA Final Five (St. Paul) and once in the NCAA regionals during this most recent stretch, with UND winning all three of those games.

All-time Series: UND leads the all-time series, 137-117-9 (.538), but the Pioneers hold a 68-51-3 (.570) record in game played at altitude.

Game News and Notes

Three North Dakota players have scored seven career points against the Pios, with forward Rocco Grimaldi leading the charge (three goals, four assists in four games played). Forward Mark MacMillan (seven games) and defenseman Dillon Simpson (ten games) each have two goals and five assists against DU. Friday’s game will be televised on CBS College Sports, while Saturday’s rematch can be seen on Root Sports Rocky Mountain. Former Denver coach George Gwozdecky is expected to be in attendance at tonight’s opener and just might make an appearance on the Magness Arena “Dasher Dance Cam”.

The Prediction

This feels like the end of the line for UND’s unbeaten streak. Denver is in a similar position to North Dakota, with the league race and NCAA tournament hopes on the line. With so much riding on this series, a split is the most likely result. I’ll take the home team in a close one on Friday, with UND rebounding on Saturday to keep both teams’ title hopes alive. DU 3-1, UND 3-2.