Colorado Avalanche prospect and University of Denver sophomore defenseman Will Butcher is set to begin the 2015 NCHC playoffs this weekend at Magness Arena in Denver. After winning the inaugural NCHC Tournament last season, Butcher and the Pioneers will look to defend their title as they take on the University of Minnesota Duluth in a best-of-three series, beginning Friday.
DU enters the playoffs ranked eighth nationally in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Poll and is the No. 4 seed in the NCHC postseason bracket. The winning team of the opening-round playoff series will advance to the conference's 2015 Frozen Faceoff tournament in Minneapolis.
|Will Butcher |
The Pios finished this year with a 20-12-2 overall record and went 13-10-1 in conference play. Butcher said he believes he and his teammates made improvements since last season to become one of the top contending teams heading into this year’s tournament.
“I think this year, both the team and myself kept going forward from last year and made strides to become a complete team,” Butcher said. “It really shows in how we finished this year. We finished in fourth place, but our league is the best league in college hockey, I think. We won home ice advantage, so it was a good turning point for our team in general to go from last year to this year and make big strides.”
Denver head coach Jim Montgomery was pleased with his team’s effort during the regular season, and expects its strong play to continue into the postseason.
“I think we did well,” Montgomery said of DU's 2014-15 campaign. “We competed hard every night. We could’ve been better in our overall record, but we play in a real tough conference. We play a great schedule—I think the fifth toughest schedule in the country. To be one of the top eight teams in the country by the end of the regular season, I think I would deem it a pretty good success.”
Montgomery thinks very highly of Butcher, the Avalanche's fifth-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, and plans to use him in almost every situation in the series against the UMD Bulldogs.
“Will is one of our pillars on the back end,” he said. “He’s such a cerebral and really poised hockey player. He leads easy breakouts for us, and that leads to really good five-man offensive-zone pressure with his brains and his hands.
“He’ll be used a lot this weekend. He’s used on the power play, penalty kill, 5-on-5, up a goal late in a game, and especially behind late in a game. He’ll get used in every opportunity because he’s one of our nucleus players, and he’s a go-to guy for us.”
After winning the 2014 NCHC Championship as a freshman, Butcher plans to take what he learned from that experience and use it to help Denver get back to the final rounds of the conference tournament.
“We know we have to play as a team and just stick to the process, as Coach Montgomery always says. If we take away that from last year, that’s how we kept winning games and kept making good plays," Butcher said. "I think if we just take that and put it into this year and this weekend against University of Minnesota Duluth at home, then I think we’ll be in good shape.”
The Pioneers split their season series with UMD, and both Butcher and Montgomery expect to see the same skilled and fast-paced Bulldogs team in each game this weekend.
“They’re a good team, a high-paced team,” the second-year blueliner said. “They go to the net hard, and we have to play really solid defensively in the D-zone and on rush play also. I think if we play well defensively then we’ll have a good chance of winning the series.”
Montgomery added: “We’re expecting really tough games. They’re going to be one-goal games. I expect it to go to three games because of how close the teams are in talent level and competitiveness. They’re a fast team, they create a lot of good offense on the rush and they’re very explosive all over the ice.”
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound rear guard is anxious to start playing playoff hockey again and to experience the high-energy atmosphere that surrounds the sport at this time of the year.
“Just the playoff mentality and how everybody is around the rink,” Butcher said when asked what he’s looking forward to the most. “It’s a lot more intense, and it’s a lot more fun to be around when guys always want to be here and want to win. I think the whole mentality and mindset is really fun and it creates a fun environment to be around, so I’m looking forward to that.”