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Fall preview: University of Denver kickstarts new season in Nebraska

By Chris Bayee, SportsEngine, 11/30/20, 9:30AM MST

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Hub exclusive: The Pioneers are playing 10 games in 19 days starting Dec. 2 as part of a pod experience in Omaha due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kohen Olischefski (pictured), who recorded 20 points for the University of Denver last year, was named a team captain for the 2020-21 season, which begins this week in Nebraska. All photos courtesy of University of Denver Athletics

Kohen Olischefski (pictured), who recorded 20 points for the University of Denver last year, was named a team captain for the 2020-21 season, which begins this week in Nebraska. All photos courtesy of University of Denver Athletics

With apologies to former Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, the rallying cry for the University of Denver’s hockey team has been a resounding “Omaha” this fall.

After an extended break that saw a promising 2019-20 season short-circuited by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pioneers and their National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) brethren are heading to eastern Nebraska for a three-week stay beginning Dec. 2 in what’s being called a hockey pod.

“Everyone is really pumped for this experience,” said Pioneers captain Kohen Olischefski. “It’s something not many players outside of the NHL will get to experience.”

The pod will pit the Pioneers against five of their league rivals for 10 games in 19 days — an unusual start for an unusual time.

“The focus is on we’re back, we’re ready to play,” said Pioneers assistant coach Dallas Ferguson. “It will be a bit of a grind at times, but we need to be grateful because a lot of people have put in a lot of time to make this happen. Everyone’s just excited to be back playing.

“I like the quick resets. You can’t focus too much on one game. … As we get going, the hope is Game 10 will look better than Game 1. If we do that we’ll be in good shape.”

Being in shape is a key for success, Olischefski added.

“The coaches emphasized our fitness and cardio will be our biggest advantage,” the senior said. “If we can come in in better shape we’re going to be in a good spot. The systems might take a while to get into.”

"You can’t focus too much on one game. … As we get going, the hope is Game 10 will look better than Game 1. If we do that we’ll be in good shape.”

--Dallas Ferguson, assistant coach of the Pioneers

The pod portion of the season will be followed by eight weekends of multiple games against Colorado College, North Dakota and the University of Nebraska Omaha over the first 10 weekends of 2021.

“It will be a challenge because there aren’t weekends in this league where you feel like you’ve got this one wrapped up,” Ferguson said. “[NCHC teams] keep you honest. Anyone can beat anyone.”

The University of Denver’s traveling party will include 10 new players, including four forwards, four defensemen and two goaltenders. Three are graduate transfers — forward Steven Jandric from Alaska Fairbanks, defenseman Bo Hanson via St. Lawrence and goalie Corbin Kaczperski came from Yale.

A talented freshman class includes four more players who have been drafted by NHL teams — defensemen Mike Benning and Antti Tuomisto, and forwards Carter Savoie and McKade Webster. They join the five returners in that category, including the top three returning scorers — centers Brett Stapley (30 points) and Cole Guttman (28 points) and wing Bobby Brink (24 points). Guttman (14 goals) and Brink (11 goals) are the only two returners who hit double figures in goals a season ago.

Overall, the University of Denver looks to replace 37% of its goal scoring and 40% of its point production, as well as goalie Devin Cooley, who went 15-10-4 over the past two years before signing a two-year entry level contract with the Nashville Predators this fall. Two other players signed with NHL teams — leading scorer and second-team All-NCHC pick Emilio Pettersen (35 points) with Calgary, and Ian Mitchell (32 points), an All-American and first-team All-NCHC defenseman who signed with Chicago.

Magnus Chrona (pictured) is likely to get the bulk of minutes in net for the University of Denver in 2020-21. He had a 2.15 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage a year ago.

Magnus Chrona (pictured) is likely to get the bulk of minutes in net for the University of Denver in 2020-21. He had a 2.15 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage a year ago.

Roster by class

 

Seniors – 9 (6 forwards, 2 defensemen, 1 goalie)

Juniors – 5 (3 forwards, 2 defensemen)

Sophomores – 5 (2 forwards, 2 defensemen, 1 goalie)

Freshmen – 7 (3 forwards, 3 defensemen, 1 goalie)

Impact players

 

This quartet will serve as barometers for the Pioneers’ season:

Goaltender Magnus Chrona: He made the NCHC All-Rookie Team last season after putting up a 2.15 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage to go with his 16-6-4 record. He’s crucial to the Pioneers’ championship designs. “He’s definitely making it a point to do extra work so he can play a lot,” Olischefski said. “He looks great. We have all the confidence in him.”

Forward Bobby Brink: Another all-rookie pick after he put up 24 points in just 28 games. Equally dangerous shooting or passing, the Philadelphia Flyers pick is expected to play in all situations this season.

Forward Cole Guttman: The junior center has been a consistent goal-scoring threat, bagging 14 in each of his first two seasons, but they tend to come in bunches. He’s also great in the circle, winning more than 55 percent of his draws. “He’s someone who has really stood out (in preseason practices),” said Olischefski, one of the Tampa Bay prospect’s wings. “He’s been great for us, and I think he’s ready to take an even bigger step forward.”

Forward Brett Stapley: The junior center is a stickhandling and passing wizard who put up 30 points a season ago, when his game took a big leap forward. He plays well on both sides of the puck.

Cole Guttman (No. 19) tallied 28 points for the Pioneers a season ago and is one of the team's top returners this fall. A 5-foot-9 junior, Guttman is a prospect of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Cole Guttman (No. 19) tallied 28 points for the Pioneers a season ago and is one of the team's top returners this fall. A 5-foot-9 junior, Guttman is a prospect of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Taking the next step

 

These three returning players likely will play much bigger roles this season:

Forward Ryan Barrow: The senior assistant captain is big (6-foot-2) and fast, and he’s hit double figures in points the past two seasons. He could be poised for the type of breakout season Olischefski had last year, when he jumped from eight to 20 points. “He and Kohen and Griffin [Mendel] are captains for a reason,” Ferguson said. “All have pushed through adversity here. Ryan has looked really good in practice so far.”

Forward Hank Crone: The junior had an up-and-down first season with the Pioneers, yet still finished with 16 points. He is only scratching his potential, Ferguson said. “He’s increased his competitiveness and engagement level. He’s got a lot of skill and a really good brain for the game, plus an ability to make others better.”

Defenseman Slava Demin: After some fits and starts, the rangy junior is evolving into a strong shutdown defender who can contribute some offense. “He has a lot of athletic ability,” Ferguson said. “His strength is his skating, his ability to angle and defend. He’s learning to transition pucks more quickly.”

Newcomers to watch

 

Defenseman Mike Benning: The reigning Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL) and Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) Defenseman of the Year, as well as a Florida Panthers draftee in October, Benning was a points machine in junior hockey. The freshman had 75 points in 54 games last season after 61 points as a 16-year-old.

Forward Steven Jandric: A grad transfer, Jandric isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and do the dirty work in the corners and in front of the net. He had 80 points in three seasons at Fairbanks.

Forward Carter Savoie: The freshman, a pick by his hometown Edmonton Oilers in October, was a scoring machine for Sherwood Park (AJHL), where he and Benning played the past two seasons. Savoie had 53 goals and 99 points in 54 games last season, part of a two-year binge that saw him amass 172 points in 112 games.

Defenseman Antti Tuomisto: Another freshman, the Detroit Red Wings draftee brings an enticing combination of size (6-foot-5), skill (he was cited as his junior league’s top player in Finland) and tenacity. “Tuomisto is a really big guy, and is a really, really smart player,” Ferguson said. “He’s a competitive player who likes to get physical. His poise is impressive.”

How they'll win

 

The Pioneers are built for speed, so a strong transition game and keeping second chances away from Chrona will be huge keys. The team's lineup is deep, and any line is capable of generating offense on a given night, but the trios centered by Guttman and Stapley likely will do a lion’s share of the damage.

Key series

 

The pod begins with a four games in the first seven days, including two against North Dakota and one each against Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State. The rematch against Duluth comes four days later, just before the first of two games versus Western Michigan. … The 2021 portion of the Pioneers' schedule includes three home-and-home games against Colorado College (yes, a six-game Gold Pan), and a home series versus North Dakota on Jan. 15-16 before a trip to Grand Forks in early February.

The last word

 

“I really like our team. The pace we do things is most impressive, how we can get up and down the ice and take away time and space. We need to be able to do that to play the way we want to.” – Pioneers coach David Carle

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