College football will give us a treat on Saturday with a quartet of undefeated teams – No. 1 LSU at No. 2 Alabama, and No. 5 Penn State at No. 13 Minnesota – squaring off with conference and national implications on the line.
But don’t sleep on college hockey, which serves up a men’s series this weekend that should reverberate into March if not April: Top-ranked Denver at No. 7 Minnesota Duluth.
The Pioneers and Bulldogs have been the gold standard over the past three years, with Denver beating UMD for the national championship in 2017 and UMD following with back-to-back NCAA titles. The Pioneers have 12 consecutive NCAA tournament berths and have reached the Frozen Four three of the past four seasons.
When they meet at AMSOIL Arena at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday (with the finale televised on FOX9-Plus in the Twin Cities), the Pioneers and Bulldogs will be switching roles a month into the season. Off to an 8-0 start, Denver will be the hunted, while UMD, a surprising 3-3, is trying to track down the Pioneers. That’s perfectly fine with Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin.
“I think we’re underdogs finally,’’ Sandelin said in his weekly news conference. “[The players] should be excited because we didn’t play last weekend and we’re coming off two big wins. It’s amazing when different teams come in, the energy level goes up, so hopefully we can keep that through the week into the weekend.’’
In their last series, Minnesota Duluth swept Minnesota in a home-and-home set a week after being swept at Wisconsin. Getting charged-up to face another rival shouldn’t be an issue for the Bulldogs. Their opponent certainly has their coach’s attention.
“They’re playing well right now,’’ Sandelin said of the Pioneers. “They’re riding an eight-game win streak, probably feeling confident in how they’re playing, and they should because they’re a good team.’’
Denver has received production throughout its lineup, with junior defenseman Ian Mitchell leading the Pioneers with 10 points on three goals and seven assists, freshman forward Bobby Brink of Minnetonka pacing the team with four goals, and freshman goalie Magnus Chrona going 7-0 with a 1.86 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and two shutouts. Brink was named NCHC rookie of the month for October, Chrona the league’s goalie of the month. As usual, the Pioneers play stingy defense, allowing only 13 goals so far and killing 33 of 34 penalties, the top rate in the nation. Denver’s plus-20 goal differential also is the best in the country.
Minnesota Duluth, meanwhile, hopes its performance against Minnesota is the sign of things to come. The Bulldogs scored a 5-2 win in Minneapolis as defenseman Scott Perunovich dominated the game with his puck-moving skills. The next night in Duluth, UMD displayed lock-down defense and rode goalie Hunter Shepard to a 2-0 win.
With 20 players returning from last season’s team and 12 returning that played on the past two national championship teams, the Bulldogs entered the season as the overwhelming choice as the No. 1 team in the national polls. They’ve worked through a few hiccups so far, and this weekend offers them a chance to regain their superiority from a conference rival.
Sure, it might not carry the nation weight of LSU-Bama or Penn State-Gophers, but for college hockey, Bulldogs vs. Pioneers is a don’t-miss treat.