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Denver coach David Carle knows his team 'can do some damage' but time is running short

The Pioneers have reached the NCAA tournament 12 years in a row.

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Denver defenseman Mike Benning (20) skates after North Dakota forward Jordan Kawaguchi (29) in the second period Tuesday, Dec. 8, at Baxter Arena in the NCHC Pod in Omaha. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service

The University of Denver has reached the NCAA men's hockey tournament 12 years in a row.

That run goes back to 2007, when the Pioneers hosted a regional at Pepsi Center, but did not reach the tournament. Since then, they've reached the national tournament every year -- a streak that has spanned three different head coaches (George Gwozdecky, Jim Montgomery and David Carle).

But that run is in jeopardy.

Denver enters this weekend at 7-10-1.

Nobody knows the exact process that will be used to pick the 16-team NCAA tournament field this season -- one in which the Pairwise Rankings are obsolete -- but teams need to be .500 or better to be eligible.

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Denver currently has four regular-season games left on the schedule -- two at UND (7:37 p.m. Friday, 6:07 p.m. Saturday) and two at home against Colorado College (Feb. 26-27).

National Collegiate Hockey Conference commissioner Josh Fenton also said this week that he expects Denver to make up two more games against Colorado College. Those games could be mid-week contests or else on the final weekend of the regular season, March 5-6.

That leaves six games -- and at least one quarterfinal contest in the NCHC playoffs -- to get to .500 or better.

Although Denver's record isn't what it expected -- the Pioneers were picked to finish second -- stats show Denver has been better than its record.

In possession, Denver ranks No. 9 in the nation and second in the NCHC, only behind UND (54.9 percent Corsi). In shots-on-goal disparity, the Pioneers rank No. 7 in the nation and first in the NCHC. They're outshooting their opponents by 7.5 per game, which is even better than 13-4-1 UND (6.0).

"We've improved week to week here in the second half," Carle said. "We like our team. I think we can do some damage. I do think our record is what we are. We're not focused on that. It's about our process and getting better week to week.

"I like where we can be at the end of the year. For us, it's a little different this year. We're trying to consistently get better and trying to get better a week, three weeks from now. That's our job."

One area Denver needs to improve is closing out games when it has the lead.

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The Pioneers have given up third-period leads in three of their 10 losses this season, the most of any NCHC team. The most recent occurred last Saturday, when Denver led Omaha 4-2 with 12 minutes left in the third but lost in overtime.

"They've been unfortunate on some bounces in games," UND coach Brad Berry said. "They've been leading games and have given up some leads. But at the end of the day, they play hard as a team. They play fast. They've got some good young players in their group. They've got some good goaltending. It's one of those situations where it seems one night, it goes their way and the next night, it doesn't.

"In this league, you have to try to win two in a row to keep going and climb the standings each and every weekend. We know what we have coming in here in Denver. We've had some hard battles against them. They're a rival. Our guys get intense for those series and I'm sure they do to. Both teams are playing for something, so you're going to see some intensity this weekend."

Denver has significantly improved in the second half in a few ways.

Newfound offense

Denver left the NCHC Pod in December averaging 2.3 goals per game.

Since then, the Pioneers are averaging 3.38 goals per game.

One source of offense has been expected. Denver played nine games without forward Bobby Brink, who was with the gold medal-winning U.S. World Junior Championship team. His return has given the Pioneers a boost.

The other newfound source of offense has been a bit more unexpected.

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Forward Hank Crone, who starred with the Fargo Force in the United States Hockey League and transferred from Boston University, was a frequent healthy scratch during the NCHC Pod. He was held out of nine of Denver's first 14 games.

But two weeks ago, Carle put him back in the lineup and Crone has delivered. The 5-foot-9, 152-pound forward from Dallas has scored goals in three of the last four games.

"He's playing faster," Carle said. "He's playing a little more direct and putting people on their heels. He was on his heels drifting away from plays, but I think in the last few games, he's done a much better job possessing pucks and attacking with speed and creativity. That's what we've seen more out of him.

"We have struggled to score goals at times. Getting Brink back into the lineup certainly helps, but Hank has that offensive ability, and when he's playing a direct game and fast, it makes us a better hockey team."

Goaltending improvement

One reason Denver struggled in the NCHC Pod is because 6-foot-6 goaltender Magnus Chrona, the league's preseason all-conference netminder, uncharacteristically struggled.

And the Pioneers' fortunes have often reflected their goaltending.

When Denver's goalies post a save percentage of .906 or better in a game, they're 6-1. When they post a .905 or lower, the Pioneers are 1-9-1.

Chrona has been particularly better as of late. He has a .926 save percentage in his last three starts, including stopping 28 of 29 in a win over UND in Magness Arena on Jan. 17.

Chrona has started all four games against UND this season, but Denver backup Corbin Kaczperski, a senior graduate transfer from Yale, started in Saturday night's 5-4 overtime loss against Omaha.

In the circle

Denver has struggled mightily in the faceoff circle for much of the season.

That was highlighted in the Pod against UND, when Fighting Hawks sophomore Shane Pinto went 18-0 in the dot against Denver.

Denver ranks No. 46 nationally and eighth in the NCHC at 45.8 percent, but the Pioneers have been vastly improved in the second half in the faceoff circle. They've only lost the faceoff battle one time in the last seven games.

Cole Guttman has led Denver in that area. He's at 59.8 percent since Christmas after winning 54 percent during the NCHC Pod.

The Pioneers will be tested in that area this weekend. UND is the best faceoff team in the nation at 56.5 percent.

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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