WCHA Final Five: No. 3 Denver

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We're going to preview the WCHA Final Five, team by team. Yes, there are six teams. But there are five games, so it's the Final Five. Get it?

No. 3 seed: Denver Pioneers

Record: 23-13-4 overall, 16-8-4 WCHA (3rd)
How they got to St. Paul: Beat Wisconsin 0-1 (loss), 3-1, and 3-2 (OT) in first-round series
Last Final Five appearance: 2011 (lost to North Dakota in championship game, 3-2 in 2OT)
Last WCHA playoff championship: 2008
The raw numbers: 3.36 goals per game (3rd); 2.56 goals against per game (3rd); 23.3% power play (1st); 82.8% penalty kill (2nd)
Leading scorers: Drew Shore, F, Jr., 21-29-50; Jason Zucker, F, So., 20-24-44; Nick Shore, F, So., 13-26-39
Goaltending: Juho Olkinuora, Fr., 8-7-3, 2.08 goals against, .928 save percentage; Sam Brittain, So., 7-3, 2.44 goals against, .925 save percentage

Denver didn't start as slowly as North Dakota did this season, but when the Pioneers lost to the Fighting Sioux 4-3 on Feb. 24, it wasn't looking that good for DU's NCAA chances.

The Pioneers had slid out of the top 15 in the Pairwise, a computer ranking that mimics the NCAA Tournament selection process (to the point where it isn't really ever wrong about who will get in and who won't). Being in the top 15 is critical, because as long as there are no upsets in major conference tournaments, the top 15 -- along with the Atlantic Hockey champion -- will get in the tournament.

Since that loss to UND, in a game DU trailed 4-0 late before rallying, the Pioneers are 5-1 and have allowed only nine goals in those six games.

Denver coach George Gwozdecky says the defensive turnaround has been huge for his team.

"One of the things we had to do was become a better defensive team, and we have," the veteran head coach said Tuesday. "We've made a better commitment to playing away from the puck, better defensively in all three zones."

Gwozdecky noted that his team was among the worst in the country defensively, and may have been relying too much on its high-octane offense to win games.

"We felt we could out-score anybody. If the other team got four, we'd get six. If they got six, we'd get eight."

Getting sophomore goalie Sam Brittain back has been huge for Denver. Brittain backstopped Denver to the NCAA Tournament last year, but he suffered a serious knee injury during the WCHA Final Five, when DU lost in double overtime to North Dakota in the title game.

However, he's not the only goalie playing well right now for the Pioneers. Freshman Juho Olkinuora has come on lately, with a .928 save percentage for the season. Brittain started both of Denver's wins in the playoff series against Wisconsin, but Gwozdecky has two goalies he knows he can lean on in crunch time.

All of this isn't meant to forget about Denver's firepower. Drew Shore and Jason Zucker are two of the top players in the WCHA, and they will be front and center this weekend, trying to lead the Pioneers to their 16th WCHA playoff championship. Defenseman Joey LaLeggia picked up WCHA Rookie of the Year honors after an outstanding season where he surprised many by leading all WCHA rookies, regardless of position, in scoring.

If the Pioneers get past Michigan Tech, a matchup with Minnesota Duluth awaits on Friday. Denver may be seeking a measure of revenge. In the teams' last meeting on Nov. 5, UMD humbled the Pioneers in Denver, 4-0. In that game, Zucker was stopped on a penalty shot by UMD goalie Kenny Reiter in the second period of a 1-0 game. Before the second period ended, UMD had a 3-0 lead.

That almost feels like it was a different season at this point. UMD was a .500 team at the time, one trying to find itself after a 1-3 start. Denver didn't have its No. 1 goalie.

Denver is a real threat in this tournament. Anyone who can claim to have players like Shore and Zucker and LaLeggia, and a goaltender like Brittain, certainly has to be taken seriously.

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