ST. PAUL, MINN. - The Denver Pioneers reached the top of the college hockey world last season for the first time since 2005, knocking off Minnesota-Duluth in a dramatic final game, 3-2. Now they're comfortably at the top of the preseason polls, the unanimous media pick to repeat in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
Denver coach Jim Montgomery said "comfortable" is the worst place his team could be.
"(Winning a title,) it's something you never forget," Montgomery said. "But how you handle it and how quickly you move on speaks volumes about your opportunity to do it again."
Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher has an NHL contract, but Denver put four players on the preseason all-conference team: senior goaltender Tanner Jaillet and forwards Henrik Borgström, Troy Terry, and Dylan Gambrell.
Gambrell, a junior, averaged more than a point per game for the Pioneers last season (10 goals, 15 assists).
"Leadership-wise, we lost a lot of key guys and older guys that kind of set the culture for us," Gambrell said. "We have to make sure we keep the good culture we have right now and continue down the path."
Though he eschews comfort, Montgomery is pleased with what he's working with as he goes for two in a row.
"On paper, this is the most talented team I've ever had in Denver," he said.
St. Cloud State, expected to greatly improve on a fifth-place finish, North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth were picked second, third and fourth, respectively. The Tigers, picked to finish last for the fourth straight season, want to make life difficult for the Pioneers as well.
Colorado College junior co-captain Mason Bergh, a Minnesota native who considered playing for Denver at one point, has a big soft spot for the Midwest arenas he grew up visiting. But the Pioneers, the team, are one of his favorite teams to play against.
The Tigers came close to stealing one from the eventual champions, but fell 2-1 in February. They were swept in the four-game season series and two-game playoff series.
"They were a very good hockey team last year. I think we all knew that," Bergh said. "The fact that they won it and not us kind of makes me angry."
The Tigers - and assuredly the rest of the league - are going to put those feelings to work.
"We're gonna outwork you and frustrate you," Bergh said. "We like to bottle things up in the neutral zone, so their skill players can't break out and play like they want to play."