By Shannon Valerio, Hockey VIPs Magazine
January 5, 2016
On Saturday, February 20, 2016 history will be made when the first outdoor hockey at Denver’s Coors Field is played. The Battle on Blake, as it’s been coined, will take place between two rival NCAA Division 1 hockey teams: The University of Denver Pioneers and the Colorado College Tigers. In anticipation of the event, Hockey VIPs will bring you weekly updates on the host University of Denver Pioneers, with a dab of CC, as they ramp up to play what promises to be one of the highlights of their season.
It’s New Years Day night as 14 friends and family members of Pioneer’s goaltender Tanner Jaillet gather in the concourse at the University of Denver’s Magness Arena where DU will take on Notre Dame. The group has flown down from Calgary to watch Jaillet, who for the first time this season has gotten the nod for both Friday and Saturday night’s games. Although he and junior goalie Evan Cowley have both had their struggles in a season where the Pioneers haven’t lived up to expectations, Jaillet has been amazingly strong in some of the losing efforts, leading coach Jim Montgomery to start the new year with a new strategy. Previously, the two men had been splitting each weekend series, with Cowley primarily getting the start on Fridays, and Jaillet on Saturdays.
“From what we understand, Tanner’s going to be the man the rest of the year if he plays well,” one of Jaillet’s cousins said.
It’s a new strategy for a new year, one that many fans have been waiting for. Which goaltender was the team going to rally around each night? The flip-flopping hasn’t necessarily been for lack of goaltending consistency, but is something that many have questioned as the team progressed through the season. With Denver’s unexpected 7-7-2 record thus far this season, dropping them from a 5th place starting rank to last week’s 17th, many have been wondering what could, and would, be changed come the new year.
One thing that presumably won’t be changing is the top line. The struggling trio of Danton Heinen (a Boston draft pick), Trevor Moore and freshman newcomer Dylan Gambrell continued to play throughout the weekend. The coach rode the line hard both games, at one point seemingly double-shifting the three as the line stayed largely intact on the power play. While the trio was able to get a combined 30 shots on net over the weekend, the fact remains that if this is going to be the line coach Montgomery relies on, they’re going to have to start finding a way to put pucks in the net.
Yet even if the top line does start finding a way to get past the goalies that seem to be having record games against the Pioneers, one thing that Denver has to account for this year is a smaller team. There’s no debating that on paper, there is perhaps more talent on the current team than the Pioneers have ever seen. However, the loss of size and physical presence has been noted by both fans and opponents.
Montgomery seemed to address that this weekend along with a few other, subtle changes. With a much bigger Notre Dame coming to town, a team that has nine NHL draft picks as opposed to DU’s five, it was going to be a game of hit or be hit. For the first time this year, fans were treated to a physical game, with DU initiating most of the tough play. Despite the absence of Brad Hawkinson, perhaps the team’s most physical player who was injured during practice last week, the defense did a fantastic job meeting the challenge and delivering a few NHL caliber hits. Tariq Hammond stepped up his physical game, demonstrating his ability to successfully disrupt opponents’ efforts, something fans have been craving ever since master hip-checker John Ryder graduated in 2012. Big Blake Hillman has also drastically improved his play since the beginning of the year and will hopefully begin to use his size to further strengthen the toughness of the Pioneers’ blue line.
After two ties with the 16th ranked Fighting Irish, Denver holds its rank at 17th in both polls on Monday, the day NCAA rankings are posted. While ranking in the top 20 is honorable for any team, it’s lower than the Pioneers have seen in recent years and certainly lower than expected this season. Still, the recent improvements show that the team is headed in the right direction and as they inch nearer to the highly anticipated Battle on Blake, a game where the Jaillets have already confirmed that 46 of the goaltender’s friends and family will attend, all signs point to another historical battle against rivals Colorado College.
Tickets are still available, and begin at just $10. Visit http://colorado.rockies.mlb.com/col/ticketing/nhl.jsp to purchase.
Photographs: Shannon Valerio/Hockey VIPsTags: Battle on Blake, Brad Hawkinson, Colorado College, Colorado College Hockey, Danton Heinin, Dylan Gambrell, John Ryder, NCAA Division I hockey, Notre Dame hockey, Tanner Jaillet, Tariq Hammond, Trevor Moore, University of Denver, University of Denver hockey