Saturday, the Bulldogs showed why. Denver played well in virtually all areas, but the Pioneers couldn't neutralize UMD's speed, and the Bulldogs ended up winning 4-2 Saturday with a strong effort from all four lines, three defensive pairs, and goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo.
It was a needed win to cap what was honestly a pretty good 120-minute performance for the Bulldogs. Denver is a damn good team, and UMD did a lot of things well. The Bulldogs deployed a sometimes-suffocating forecheck, forcing uncharacteristic mistakes from DU's elite defensemen.
One of the things we talked about going in was the need to both be physical with the likes of Joey LaLeggia and Nolan Zajac. While UMD didn't hit either player very much, one thing it did well was take options away from them. There were turnovers forced in DU's defensive zone that allowed UMD to organize attacks and get chances to the net.
The Bulldogs used their speed to make plays in all situations. They closed on outlet passes and stole possession, they made plays off the rush to score goals or set up chances, and they backchecked to break up potential chances off the rush for Denver.
It wasn't perfect. Denver took advantage of a sleepy start to the second period Friday to score twice for a 3-1 lead it wouldn't relinquish. The Pioneers hemmed UMD in to set up their second goal on Saturday that cut the lead in half and made for quite the hairy second half of the third period.
But credit UMD. It didn't sit on the lead. The Bulldogs didn't resort to a chip and chase game. Instead, UMD took the play to Denver for chunks of the third period, but couldn't beat starter-turned-sub Evan Cowley in net (more on that later). That alone was refreshing, because far too often we see teams try to sit on leads. In both these games, the team playing with the lead kept the pressure going in the third period.
That's how UMD plays. When the Bulldogs sit back, they tend to not be as sharp, and that can lead to mistakes in the defensive zone. That's just not their style. It's why you don't see Denver look at how Western Michigan -- and, to a certain extent, Bemidji State -- beat UMD and try to duplicate that. It's not the Pioneers' style of play, and trying to do something so far outside their comfort zone could lead to trouble.
Saturday's win means UMD and Denver split their four-game season series. That's a fitting result. Ignore that UMD outscored Denver for the season 13-9. The games were fun, generally well-played, and not without some intensity. Sure wouldn't mind seeing DU again.
Saturday was the best game Kaskisuo has played in 2015. After posting an .870 save percentage over his previous six starts (Jan. 10 at North Dakota, Jan 16-17 vs Western Michigan, Jan. 23 against Bemidji, and the Friday DU game), the freshman from Finland got back to his 2014 form.
Kaskisuo was beaten a couple times on good shots through traffic, but he stopped Danton Heinen on a breakaway shortly after UMD had taken the lead for good in the second period, then stood tall during two crucial penalty kills in the third period.
UMD doesn't necessarily need Kaskisuo to steal games, and I'm not sure I'd say he did that on Saturday. But the Bulldogs need him in the form he was in on Saturday. Kaskisuo made himself big in net and wasn't about to let UMD kick away its lead. He was a key piece of the puzzle for a huge win on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Denver's goaltending carousel Saturday was a bit bizarre. Cowley started the game, but was relieved by freshman Tanner Jaillet after the first period. Jaillet allowed two goals on nine shots, including one by Alex Iafallo where Jaillet had a chance to cover a soft tip on goal by Adam Krause. Instead, he let it bounce off his stick and it deflected right to Iafallo, who was driving the net.
After that, Cowley was put back in the game.
So the goaltender of record for Denver Saturday didn't start or finish the game.
I'm not going to question Montgomery, who's done a great job in what many thought was an impossible situation -- taking over for the highly-regarded and popular George Gwozdecky after he was let go. Montgomery got this team to the NCAAs last year, and they look like they'll make it again. It's his team and he knows his players much better than I do. I'm just pointing out what happened and noting I haven't seen it before.
UMD is third in the NCHC as the stretch run nears. In fact, while most of the league is either off or playing one game, the Bulldogs are the only team in the NCHC playing Friday and Saturday this weekend. The Bulldogs host Northern Michigan of the WCHA for a non-conference set. Meanwhile, Denver takes on Colorado College Friday, and Miami battles Western Michigan at Soldier Field Saturday as part of the Hockey City Classic.
Northern Michigan has cooled off considerably since a 7-2-1 start to the season, but while the Wildcats are hovering around .500 at 11-9-2 right now, there's no reason to think they're a slouch. NMU owns a win at Michigan Tech, and veteran coach Walt Kyle will assuredly have his group ready to renew an old rivalry with UMD this weekend.
I ran into NCHC communications poobah Mike Weisman after Saturday's game, and he said a couple of league series were scheduled this weekend but moved because of conflicts.
After this weekend, everyone in the NCHC will have eight conference games left, and those eight games will be contested over the final four weekends of the regular season. Everyone will play in league every weekend, and it'll be an unbelievable race to the finish.
Following Saturday's win, one of the UMD players told me "Man, sure are no nights off in this league."
Couldn't be more accurate, and the race to the Penrose Cup title will be the definition of intense.