Hockey Series Preview: Denver Pioneers

Photo Credit: Matthew Semisch, Radio Free Omaha

At the end of the day, day my momma told me don't let no one break me, let no one break me
At end of the day, day, nobody, nobody, ever could stop me ever could stop me, ever could stop me
At the end of the day, day you can't regret it if you were trying, if you were trying
At the end of the day, day I'm walking with a heart of a lion

KiD CuDi--Heart of a Lion

Let's get a few facts straight right now.

Wisconsin's start to the 2012-13 season couldn't have been worse. They've dealt with injuries, NCAA violations, and coaching changes. They're 1-7-2, and have created a new definition of 'rock bottom.'

With that in mind, this team deserves a better fate than their 1-7-2 record indicates -- This isn't a 1-7-2 team based on the way they've played. Multiple times this season Wisconsin has outplayed an opponent for two periods but couldn't close the deal and fell in the end.

Bill Parcells once famously said that you are what your record says you are. Unfortunately, he's right. Wisconsin has an uphill climb as they attempt to claw their way up the WCHA standings. They've also put themselves behind the eight ball in terms of an NCAA tournament at-large birth.

I did some quick math looking back at the past five NCAA tournaments and who received at-large bids to the big dance. I took the at-large team with the worst record in the tournament over the past five seasons and averaged their overall winning percentages.

Based on what I found, .548 is the average worst winning percentage to make the tournament over the past five seasons. Not including the end of the season WCHA tournament, Wisconsin would have to go approximately 16-6-4 in their remaining regular season games to give themselves a chance at reaching that .548 magic number.

Tall task? Certainly. But it's not out of the question.

The journey continues once again this weekend as Wisconsin travels to Denver for a spotlight WCHA series. Friday night's game is going to be televised nationally on the NBC Sports Network.

BADGER OFFENSE

Obviously the big news this week is the return of freshman forward Nic Kerdiles to the Wisconsin lineup. The blue-chip freshman will make his Badger debut after sitting out an NCAA mandated ten game suspension for violations of their amateurism code.

The big left winger comes to the Wisconsin program with plenty of accolades. A second round NHL Draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks, Kerdiles was the top forward on the United States Under 18 team last season, and led the club in scoring with 48 points (22 goals, 26 assists) in 54 games. Kerdiles also notched five points in the U18 World Championships gold medal game vs Sweden.

Kerdiles' presence alone should provide a spark for the Badgers' offense, and head coach Mike Eaves is looking for his heralded freshman to bring some energy this weekend.

"One of his greatest assets is his skating ability," Eaves said. "He can play at a high tempo and pace."

Eaves is also hoping for a little bit of offense from the Irvine, Calif. native.

"He shoots the puck well. He has a nose for the net. He gets a lot of goals down there."

Obviously with a team struggling for offense, Kerdiles is a welcomed addition. However Eaves said that Kerdiles just needs to play his game, and not try to do too much out there.

"I hope that his teammates and he don't expect him to be the guy that does everything," Eaves said. "He's got to be part of the solution here that we have going, and I think he can be."

Currently Kerdiles is playing on a line with junior center Jefferson Dahl and junior winger Tyler Barnes.

BADGER DEFENSE & GOALTENDERS

One of the overlooked story lines last weekend was what happened between the pipes for the Badgers. Landon Peterson was given the start on Friday night and played ok. Saturday night Joel Rumpel was given the nod and was pulled after a first period that saw him give up three goals.

Earlier in the year it looked like Rumpel had clearly taken over as Wisconsin's number one goaltender, but after a 40+ save effort from Peterson a few weeks ago against Minnesota, and Rumpel's recent struggles, the battle for the Badger net seems to be as wide open as ever.

Defensively last weekend Wisconsin had a few major mistakes and Minnesota State was able to take full advantage of them. As Eaves said after the games, the players were in the right positions, but they didn't make the plays. Wisconsin will need to be much better this weekend against a high flying Pioneer attack.

PIONEER OFFENSE

Let's hope the Wisconsin goaltenders got some rest this week because they aren't going to catch much of a break against Denver. The Pioneers are the number one scoring offense in college hockey at 4.17 goals per game and are certainly going to be upset after being swept in a pair of non-conference games last weekend against New Hampshire and Yale.

The Pioneers lost a trio of talented underclassmen in Beau Bennett, Drew Shore, and Jason Zucker, but they've seen plenty of players step up in their places.

Denver is led this season by Drew's little brother Nick, who leads the team in scoring with 17 points (6 goals, 11 assists) in 12 games. Senior Chris Knowlton (8 goals, 7 assists) has also stepped up in his final season as a Pioneer.

PIONEER DEFENSE & GOALTENDERS

The strength of this Denver team is on their back end. The Pioneer defensemen are talented on both ends of the ice, and are really the straw that stirs the drink with this Denver club.

They're led by sophomore Joey LaLeggia who was an all conference player last season as a freshman. The Edmonton Oiler's draft pick is back to his old tricks again this season averaging over a point per game.

One of the more underrated players in the league has been junior David Makowski. After a strong freshman season, Makowsi missed the the majority of last season with an injury. He's made up for lost time in a big way and is playing like an all conference blueliner this time around.

Denver also features freshman Nolan Zajac and second round NHL draft pick Scott Mayfield to form arguably the best blue-line in the entire country.

In goal Denver features a trio of elite net-minders, although we're only likely to see two of them this weekend. Friday's expected starter is Finish goaltender Juho Olkinuora who is 3-1 on the season and carries a .925 save percentage. On Saturday we'll see junior Sam Brittain, who's one of the best goaltenders in the country.

THREE KEY'S TO SUCCESS VS DENVER

  1. Pressure Denver's defense all weekend long. As their defense goes, their team goes. Like Wisconsin when they were led by guys like Justin Schultz, Jake Gardiner, Brendan Smith, and Ryan McDonagh, the Pioneers find offense from the blue-line and feed off of it. Pressure those guys and make their forwards beat you.
  2. Ride the emotion of Kerdiles' return. Here's a kid who stuck it out through a ten game suspension at Wisconsin when he could have bolted for the Western Hockey League and played immediately. You know that he's going to come out flying, so play off of his emotion and use it in your favor.
  3. Win one game at a time. It's extremely cliche, but Wisconsin can't turn their record around in one game. They're going to need to focus on the task at hand and that's beating Denver on Friday night first.

COVERAGE

Friday night's game is being shown on national TV in the United States on the NBC Sports Network. There is no TV for Saturday's game, but there is a video feed for Saturday on Denver's official website (LINK).

NOTE: If you buy the webcast Saturday, make sure you cancel your account after the game or Denver will charge you a monthly fee until you do.

As always the games can be found on the radio on the Badger Sports Network and WIBA 1310.

POLLS

Denver comes into the weekend ranked fifth in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls.

Wisconsin is not ranked.

INJURIES

Wisconsin is still without freshman forward Morgan Zulinick who didn't make the trip due to a thigh injury. The surprising news is that junior forward Mark Zengerle (finger) did make the trip, but he's not expected to play Friday. He's a possibility for Saturday though.

Denver will be without the services of sophomore blue-liner Josiah Didier who is out with a high ankle sprain.

LAST MEETING

Denver ended Wisconsin's season with a 3-2 victory in overtime in last year's WCHA playoffs.

FUN FACT

Denver defenseman Nolan Zajac is more than likely known as the brother of former North Dakota and New Jersey Devil's star Travis, but Nolan's father is actually a former Pioneer.

QUOTABLE

"Stay with us. This group has not quit. They work hard. We’ll get healthier and we will have some difference makers in our lineup and they’ll like watching this team so stay with us."--Mike Eaves' plea to the Wisconsin fans after Saturday's sweep at the hands of Minnesota State.

PREDICTION

This is a tough one. My heart says Wisconsin earns at least a win this weekend, but my head says that Denver's the much better team, and is playing at home. On the podcast earlier this week I predicted a Pioneer sweep, but I think I'm underestimating the spark this club might get from Kerdiles' return.

Friday: Wisconsin 4, Denver 3

Saturday: Denver 4, Wisconsin 2

For more Wisconsin hockey coverage, follow Andy on Twitter (@AndyJohnsonB5Q)

You can also reach Andy via e-mail (AndyJohnsonB5Q@gmail.com)

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