Pioneers are not knocking their early opportunity

(left) Coach Gwozdecky hopes to get DU off to a fast start in Conference play

From: Rocky Mountain News
Much like last week, its series this weekend represents an opportunity for the University of Denver hockey team to get a head start on the competition.

A split in games against nationally ranked Miami (Ohio) and Colgate at the Ice Breaker Invitational gave the Pioneers a key road win, a feat that always looks good when the NCAA tournament selection committee begins its homework.

Beginning tonight, the Pioneers visit St. Cloud State in a series that will give each team a chance to get a jump on its rivals in what is expected to be a wire-to-wire battle in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

It will be the opener for St. Cloud State, which is playing host to one of two key series in the WCHA's opening weekend. North Dakota begins league play with a road series at defending national champion Wisconsin.

"Going to Miami, that was a tough environment, and we're going to go to St. Cloud and there is going to be 10,000, 15,000 people there screaming at us," said sophomore Chris Butler, who earned the WCHA Defensive Player of the Week award after posting one goal in each game last weekend. "It's a big WCHA game and it will be big for the standings. The WCHA is so tough, anyone on any given night can beat you."

DU and St. Cloud State were picked to finish fourth and fifth in the preseason poll of a league that took the brunt of the mass exodus of early departures that marked the college hockey offseason.

St. Cloud State was spared much of the carnage of the early defections, leaving Huskies fans optimistic for a team that won five of its final seven games and made a somewhat surprising appearance in the WCHA Final Five.

DU lost Hobey Baker Award winner Matt Carle and current Avalanche rookie Paul Stastny to NHL contracts, a loss of firepower that was prevalent among the WCHA's top contenders.

Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota suffered multiple early departures, leaving the opening of the WCHA schedule with more question marks and a heightened sense of expectation to see how the league race will shape up.

"(St. Cloud State) is a very good team, and I have a feeling I'll be saying that every week in preparation for the next series," DU coach George Gwozdecky said. "It's going to be very close. It's going to be very tight throughout the year. I see this series as being similar to what many of the series will be throughout the season. If there is an advantage going into the series, it's that we have played a couple games against some very good competition."

Denver at St. Cloud State

When: 6 MDT tonight and Saturday.

Where: National Hockey Center (5,763 capacity), St. Cloud, Minn.

TV/radio: No television; KKFN-AM (950) tonight and KCKK-AM (1600) on Saturday.

• Notes: St. Cloud State went 22-16-4 last season, earning a split of a series against Denver at Magness Arena . . . Denver is ranked 11th by U.S. College Hockey Online and 12th in the USA Today/American Hockey Magazine poll . . . St. Cloud State is ranked 16th in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll . . . The Pioneers have won seven of their past eight games against the Huskies . . . Denver junior goaltender Peter Mannino has gone 3-0 with a 1.40 goals-against average against St. Cloud State . . . Motzko served as an assistant under Gwozdecky at Miami (Ohio) from 1991 to 1993 . . . Butler, Mullen, Dingle, freshman Tyler Ruegsegger and Brock Trotter posted two points last weekend.

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