Colorado College enters its league playoffs as a heavy underdog against top-ranked Denver.
For coach Mike Haviland, that makes the best-of-three National Collegiate Hockey Conference quarterfinal series an opportunity for the Tigers to surprise everyone but themselves.
"We have nothing to lose," he said. "Their No. 1 status and all that comes with that puts the pressure on them. For us, we just have to worry about ourselves and play our game."
That means a defense-first structure with an aggressive forecheck that makes the opponent work to get the puck up the ice, perhaps frustrating them by forcing the puck handler out along the outside and denying scoring chances down low.
"We just have to stick with our identity," Haviland added. "We cannot come up with some magical plan against then. We have been playing playoff-style hockey for some time now. We have to lay it all on the line."
The Tigers take on a team that is arguably the best in Division 1 during the second half. Denver is averaging a national-best 4.25 goals will allowing a D1 low of 1.69 en route to a 14-2 record, including an active 11-game win streak, since Jan. 1.
Success could make the 26-6-4 Pioneers, who include all-rookie NCHC honoree Henrik Borgstrom (36 points, 21 goals in 30 games), overconfident heading into this weekend at Magness Arena.
Denver coach Jim Montgomery is working to avoid that, despite the 12-game win streak against their 8-22-4 rival and the goal of an NCAA championship this April.
"It's obviously nice to be the top seed in our conference heading into the postseason but we've still got a lot of work to do," Montgomery said after clinching the Penrose Cup. "This is a special group we have here and we all know that we've got to continue to focus on the process and stay in the moment if we want to reach all of our goals this season."
The DU roster includes Avalanche draft pick, NCHC first-team honoree, and senior defenseman Will Butcher (34 points) and first-team goalie honoree Tanner Jaillet (23-4-4, 1.87 goals against, .929 saves percentage).
Denver is the favorite on paper, but if the Tigers play well defensively and avoid turnovers in their zone, CC could find itself with the opportunity to surprise those outside the locker room.
"They're a great team that has a lot up front and their defense is very good as well, but you never know in our conference," Tigers senior Luc Gerdes said. "Anyone can beat anybody in this league. We proved that with No. 3 (Minnesota-)Duluth, (No. 7) Western Michigan and (No. 14) North Dakota (combined 2-4-3 record against), which are also good teams."