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UND's offense issues extend to postseason with 2-0 loss at Denver

Denver freshman forward Cole Guttman shoots the puck over UND goalie Peter Thome and into the glass during the first period of Friday's game in Magness Arena. Photo by Shannon Valerio/University of Denver.

DENVER -- The start of the playoffs looked a lot like the regular season.

UND controlled the opening period, didn’t allow a shot on goal for more than 16 minutes, generated some Grade A-scoring chances. . . and found itself trailing when it went to the intermission.

UND’s inability to turn puck possession into offensive production started this fall in its preseason exhibition game against Manitoba, grew to a crescendo during the regular season and, on Friday night, entered the postseason in the form of a 2-0 loss to Denver in Magness Arena.

That means UND’s season will be on the line at 8:08 p.m. Saturday in Game 2 of their best-of-three National Collegiate Hockey Conference quarterfinal series.

In order to win a first-round league playoff series for a 17th consecutive season, the Fighting Hawks will have to win back-to-back games in Magness Arena, a feat they haven’t pulled off since November 2003.

They’ll also have to discover a way to solve Denver rookie goaltender Filip Larsson, something they’ve found nearly impossible this season.

Larsson posted a 32-save shutout Friday night and has now stopped 140 of 143 shots (.979 save percentage) in his four starts against the Fighting Hawks. The Pioneers are 3-0-1 in those games, despite not scoring more than two goals in any of them.

“No. 1, he’s a quality goaltender,” UND coach Brad Berry said. “I think the biggest thing is getting net-front traffic on them, trying to get there and establish your territory there. Obviously, getting pucks there is the next thing. We have to do that a little bit more. I thought we sustained a lot of play in the offensive zone. We didn’t play a lot in our end of the rink. But we’ve got to do a better job of being sharper tomorrow, moving pucks and getting bodies to the net.

"You've got to give him credit. He's a good goaltender. But the other thing is that we have to make it a little more difficult on him tomorrow."

Denver used a first-period goal from forward Tyson McLellan and a third-period goal from defenseman Griffin Mendel -- two players who haven’t scored against anybody except UND this season -- to give Larsson enough of a cushion to win.

“I didn’t think our execution was at the highest as far as making plays, where it’s in the wheelhouse of a one-timer or just being sharp getting pucks to the net,” Berry said. “We have to be better on execution. We had enough chances to score two or three goals, but I think our execution has to be a lot better.”

Puck possession hasn’t been a problem for UND this season. It ranks second nationally in both major possession statistics -- Corsi and Fenwick. But the Fighting Hawks haven't turned that into offense. They rank 43rd of 60 teams nationally in scoring and seventh of eight in the NCHC.

Those problems manifested again in Friday’s game, the 10th time that UND has lost this season when outshooting its opponent by double digits. Three of those losses have come against the Pioneers, who reached the 20-win mark for an 18th-straight season.

“I think they control the middle of the ice really well,” said UND senior center Rhett Gardner, whose goal drought reached 23 games. “It’s hard to get a Grade A against them. We had a lot of shots but no Grade As. I thought we had a couple of good looks, but we didn’t have much net-front and hit him right in the chest. We’ve got to get more bodies and pucks to the net and create more havoc in the crease.”

UND defenseman Gabe Bast, who led the team with six shots on goal, said: “They defend well. They swarm you in the D-zone. Tomorrow, we have to do a better job of getting pucks from the corner to the front of the net and create scrambles in front. We’re a big, heavy team and I think we can muscle them off and generate chances that way.”

The Fighting Hawks (18-16-2) fell to No. 20 in the Pairwise Rankings. They need to climb to No. 15, at a minimum, to have a shot at reaching the NCAA tournament. So, Saturday’s game is a potential elimination game.

The last time UND was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs was 2002, which is also the last time it was on the road for a first-round series.

“We’ve been in do-or-die scenarios the last two months,” Gardner said. “We’re battle tested. We’re staying positive. There are things we want to do better, but we’ve got to win two games and there are two games left.”

UND started Friday’s game strong. It took Denver 16 minutes, 15 seconds to even register a shot on goal. But as has been the case so many times this season, the Pioneers left that period with the lead.

The Fighting Hawks failed to take advantage of back-to-back power play chances, including :18 of five-on-three time. At the start of the five-on-three, Gardner got tossed out of the faceoff circle, Nick Jones lost the draw, Denver cleared the zone, the five-on-three expired and UND did nothing with the remaining five-on-four power play.

Then, with a minute to go in the frame, Denver senior Jarid Lukosevicius centered a pass from behind the net to McLellan, who one-timed it past UND goalie Peter Thome (15 saves) for his second goal of the season.

After a scoreless second, Denver extended its lead at 11:44 of the third on a point shot by Mendel with traffic in front of Thome. It was Mendel's first goal of the year.

UND pulled Thome for the final 3:37, but couldn’t get one past Larsson.

“Energy is going to be key tomorrow,” Berry said. “We’re going to get this thing to Sunday, but we’ve got to make sure everybody’s energized and nobody has an empty tank.”

Bast said: “We have to lay it all on the line. We have to win this game.”

DENVER 2, UND 0

First period -- 1. DU, Tyson McLellan 2 (Jarid Lukosevicius 10, Michael Davies 9) 19:00

Second period -- No scoring

Third period -- 2. DU, Griffin Mendel 1 (Jaakko Heikkinen 8) 11:44

Penalties -- Griffin Mendel, DU, interference, 6:27 first; Brett Stapley, DU, slashing, 8:09 first; Grant Mismash, UND, elbowing indirect contact to the head, 2:32 second; Gabe Bast, UND,

Goalie saves -- UND: Peter Thome 2-6-7 -- 15; DU: Filip Larsson 11-13-8 -- 32

Penalties-minutes -- UND 2-4, DU 2-4

Power plays -- UND 0-2, DU 0-2

Attendance -- 4,378

Referees -- Joe Sullivan and Cameron Voss

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 14th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016 and 2018, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He also was the NCHC's inaugural Media Excellence Award winner in 2018. Schlossman has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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