First-place UNO ready to face rejuvenated Pioneers

Led by head coach George Gwozdecky, the Denver Pioneers have won their last three games - all against nationally-ranked opposition - by a combined 13-2. (Photo credit: Matthew Semisch)

Led by head coach George Gwozdecky, the Denver Pioneers have won their last three games – all against nationally-ranked opposition – by a combined 13-2. (Photo credit: Matthew Semisch)

This is latest Nebraska Omaha has ever been at the top of its league’s standings in any season, and the Mavericks have another chance this weekend to prove why they are where they are.

No. 13 UNO (13-8-1, 9-4-1 WCHA) visits ninth-ranked Denver (12-6-3, 7-4-3) Friday and Saturday, and Maverick head coach Dean Blais’ team should be on red alert considering the roll the Pioneers have been on lately.

That’s almost an odd thing to say, considering DU was reeling ahead of the winter break just gone, having posted an 0-5-3 record between Nov. 23 and Dec. 15. However, a 6-0 win over eighth-ranked Denver on Dec. 29 and a two-game sweep last weekend of No. 15 Cornell has the Pios back on track.

DU won those three non-conference games by a combined 13-2.

Pioneer head coach George Gwozdecky is working with a short bench – DU is down to only 11 available forwards and six defensemen – but his club appears to be in good shape otherwise.

It’s hard to pinpoint which position group leads this DU team, as the Pioneers have been solid in every facet this season. The Pioneers are third in the WCHA in scoring offense with 3.43 goals per game, fourth in scoring defense (only 2.38 GPG conceded), and DU has one of the deepest goaltending corps in the country.

Junior forward Nick Shore leads the Pios up top with a team-best 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists), and senior star Chris Knowlton – who has scored 10 of his 11 goals this season against WCHA opposition – is only two points behind.

Sophomore defenseman Joey LaLeggia (7 G, 11 A) is DU’s biggest danger man on the blue line. The Edmonton Oilers prospect has proved this season that he deserved his title last season as WCHA Rookie of the Year, having amassed 11 goals and 27 assists.

In net, the Pioneers have been led recently by sophomore Juho Olkinuora. The Fininish national has the country’s fourth-best save percentage (.948) and fifth-best goals-against average (1.55), good enough to keep a very good goaltender in Sam Brittain on the bench.

DU’s Magness Arena hasn’t historically been a happy hunting ground for the Mavericks, as UNO is 0-7-1 all-time in the Colorado capital. The Mavericks’ only three wins over the Pioneers in the teams’ 15 meetings have been at home.

Blais will be hoping that UNO finally gets a win at Magness this weekend, though, and Hobey Baker Award candidate Ryan Walters (13 G, 20 A) will be looked upon to lead the Mavericks as they try and pick up that long-awaited victory in what’s been a house of horrors for them.

Following this weekend’s series, DU will head northeast to visit No. 18 St. Cloud State. UNO is off next weekend, thus giving the Mavericks a break before they head up to Bemidji State in two weeks’ time.

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