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Championship Preview: Both Teams Focused on Defending
BOSTON — Saturday's national championship game will feature the top two offenses in the country. Denver enters the final averaging 4.3 goals per game and the Mavericks have scored 4.1 goals per game.
But all anyone is talking about is how hard these teams defend. After all — and it's a cliche — but defense wins championships.
"They play with a lot of confidence," said Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings. "They like to possessthe puck when they get inside the offensive zone. You look at the goal that was scored the other day in overtime, created turnover, getting to the corner, they attacked the net. They're substance-based. They've got depth. I just think they have a certain swagger about them when they get a puck. They pursue it when they don't have it."
The top two lines on both Denver and Minnesota State are filled with top-notch players. Denver boasts Bobby Brink, Cole Guttman, Carter Savoie, and Brett Stapley. Minnesota State answers with Nathan Smith, Julian Napravnik, Brendan Furry and Ryan Sandelin.
One of the biggest matchups in Saturday's Frozen Four semifinal could be which team gets better production out of its middle-six forwards.
Just look at what happened Thursday.
"We're going to have to go out and make plays against this team knowing that the team is going to defend with an attitude," Hastings said. "So there's a reason they're playing on Saturday, and it's because they're good."
Savoie's heroics were the main story for the Pioneers but Cameron Wright's goal — coming on the third line — at 5:36 of the third period gave the Pioneers the lead (at the time). In the nightcap, Reggie Lutz (third line), Ondrej Pavel (fourth line), and David Silye (third line) scored three of the four non-empty-net goals for the Mavericks.
For the Mavericks it will be Lutz, Wright, Silye, and Pavel ... for Denver it will be Carter Mazur, Massimo Rizzo, and Wright. Whichever team wins that matchup in the middle-six probably wins the game.
Just ask Michigan and Minnesota how effective those lines were on Thursday.
"Their ability to transition the puck is dangerous," said Hastings. "They do a really good job defending, as I mentioned earlier. Then their ability from their back end to get the puck from their stick up to their forwards, then getting up and supporting it."
Of course, players in those positions on the line chart are tasked with being as strong on the defensive side of the puck as they are on the offensive side of the puck.
"Both teams, you watch Denver, watching the amount of tape that we have, they're about as detailed a team that I've seen with their sticks, getting back on top," said Hastings. "Look at what they did last night to an incredibly talented Michigan team. Last night when we got behind in the game, I thought it was still really important that we continued to defend so they didn't extend the lead, then when we didn't have the puck get it back so we could get on offense."
At the top of the line chart, Denver will have to figure out a way to generate offense on the Mavs, who are incredibly efficient at defending leads.
Last night, as soon as they took a 2-1 lead in the second, one CCHA person texted CHN, "ballgame, it's over."
Lutz had six shots on goal for the Mavericks last night against the Gophers. The Mavs limited all of Minnesota's forwards to just seven shots on goal total.
That's a Minnesota team, mind you, that includes Ben Meyers and Matthew Knies, among others, up front.
"Well, first of all, what you do with the puck is one thing, but it's just as important what you're doing without the puck so you can get it back," Hastings said. "I just think there's two sides of the game. You have to be committed to both sides of that I think to be effective at this time. That's why I think both teams moved on with the opportunity for Saturday."
Denver, to its credit, held the high-powered Michigan offense to just 21 shots on goal.
"You have to take it shift after shift, ultimately I think led us to success," said Denver coach David Carle. "That's what these guys are preaching as our leadership group in the room. I think that's what the players are following. That will be a lot of our same mindset. There's going to be things in the game that don't go our way, things that do go our way. We have to try to approach the next shift just like we did the last."
Minnesota State has won 18 games in a row. If the Mavericks win on Saturday they'll finish the season with 39 wins. That will be the most since Maine's 42-win season in 1993.
"I don't really think any of the guys have thought about the streak at all," Ryan Sandelin said. "I think we're just focused on playing a good 60 minutes every time we play. There hasn't really been any chatter at all about the kind of the streak we're on. We're focused on playing good hockey and to our identity. I think we've done that consistently for a while now. We need that to continue if we want to have success on Saturday.
Added Benton Maass, "It's playing the game we've played all year. We know that's what's going to make us successful. Even though we're going up a really skilled Denver team, I certainly like how we match up. I think our guys are going to be extremely focused and ready to go for tomorrow."