The No. 12 Denver Pioneers (2-2-2) will be heading to Grand Forks, N.D., to take on the No. 8 North Dakota Fighting Sioux (3-2-1) this weekend.
It will be North Dakota’s first home games of the season, which should just add to the excitement and intensify the rivalry that has grown into one of the most heated in college hockey. The bad blood began with a Geoff Paukovich hit on Robbie Bina in March of 2005. Paukovich, who is five inches taller and outweighs Bina by 35 pounds, hit Bina in the back and sent him head first into the boards. Paukovich was given a minor penalty for boarding and was eventually suspended for a game. Bina was diagnosed with shattered vertebrae and missed the rest of the 2005 season. The intensity has even boiled over to the bench as Denver coach George Gwozdecky has been ejected twice against the Sioux, once in 2006 and the other in 2009. "It's going to be crazy. Their fans are crazy. It's a good rivalry. They don't like us. We don't like them" said Jesse Martin, senior forward for Denver. To top it all off and just because there isn’t enough going on tonight is Ed Belfour night.
Last weekend North Dakota was embarrassed by Maine losing by a combined five to eleven score, dropping them from No. 2 to No. 8 in the rankings "They’re certainly going to be upset by how they played and it’s certainly going to be an emotional task for us to deal with their emotion and determination and their will to win starting Friday night, but certainly I feel good about what we’ve been doing so far," said Gwozdecky in his weekly press conference.
Meanwhile, Denver got back on track by taking three points against Wisconsin last weekend. "I think our experience over the past three weekends certainly has been challenging for us," Gwozdecky said at his weekly press conference. "I certainly think that those six games we have played certainly prepare us for our second WCHA opponent of the year." He would remark later, "The freshmen have got six games under their belt right now and some of them are starting to feel real comfortable. With every game they've played, these young guys have understood more and more what they have to do every time they step on the ice."
The efforts of defenseman John Lee and goalie Sam Brittain were noticed last weekend as they both received WCHA honors. Brittain, boasts a .940 save percentage and 1.70 goals against average so far this season. Drew Shore forward was also nominated.
Once again true freshman Sam Brittain will start both games again as sophomore Adam Murray is still out due to a groin injury. The injured list also includes Nick Shore (wrist/hand fracture), Dustin Jackson (mono), who are out this weekend while Paul Phillips had nasal surgery.
The two squads appear to have different philosophies so far this season as Denver’s game has been more defensive focused scoring 2.33 per game while giving up 2.83. North Dakota’s play has been more loose allowing 3.50 per game will scoring 3.83. With the differing styles, special teams could have a big say in the outcome of this weekend’s series. Denver’s penalty kill is ranked sixth in the nation killing off 27 of 30 power plays. This unit will be tested as North Dakota has the tenth ranked power play, converting at a 25.8 percent. The biggest area of improvement for Denver needs to come from their power play as they have been dreadful so far this season. Denver has only converted two of 32 chances. North Dakota has the fourth-most penalty minutes in college hockey at 120, Denver will have their chances and will need to take advantage.
I am amazed at how quickly the college hockey seasons goes from exhibition games to very important conference matchups. This will be a crucial weekend series for the Pioneers and their conference and playoff aspirations.