Junior defenseman Blake Hillman has become the blue-line leader for the top-ranked University of Denver hockey team. Hillman, a 2016 draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, is a terrific talent, but if voters knew about the Pioneers’ suddenly inexperienced back-end corps, their expectations probably wouldn’t be so high.
Because of graduation and injuries, Hillman and sophomore Michael Davies are the last remaining available defensemen from what the Pioneers used to win the 2017 NCAA championship in April. This weekend, DU will be without its two senior defensemen in Tariq Hammond and Adam Plant when the Pioneers (6-2-2) continue their rugged four-game homestand with a two-game series against No. 3 North Dakota (7-2-3).
Hammond and Plant combine for 226 games worth of experience. The six defensemen in Friday’s lineup will have a combined 184 games, with 92 coming from Hillman.
Hammond, the team captain, still hasn’t been cleared from off-season ankle surgeries. He’s practicing with contact but hasn’t regained an efficient skating stride. Plant, an alternate captain, suffered an upper-body injury in the third period of Saturday’s 5-1 win over then-No. 1 St. Cloud State and hasn’t practiced this week.
Junior Sean Mostrom, who has played in just four career games at DU, will replace Plant and partner with 18-year-old freshman Griffin Mendel. Davies will be paired with sophomore Erich Fear, who played just six games as a freshman. And Hillman will work with freshman Ian Mitchell, 18, at even strength.
“It’s a tough scenario for ‘Planter,'” Hillman said. “I’ll have to step in play big minutes and be a leader on the back end for this team. We’re such a deep team. Guys are ready to fill roles. Mostrom and Fear and all those guys have been practicing really well this week. I think they’re going to be fine. I’m not worried about it. It’s more up to me to make sure everyone is on the same page and really take on that leadership role.”
Plant, who scored two goals Saturday and produced nine shots in the St. Cloud series to earn National Collegiate Hockey Conference Defenseman of the week Honors, is third among active NCAA players in games played with 132. He trails Minnesota-Duluth’s Karson Kuhlman and North Dakota captain Austin Poganski, who have played 134 games apiece.
DU coach Jim Montgomery said there’s a slight chance Plant plays Saturday.
“We don’t have our back-end leaders — guys who have had to manage a lot of tough minutes before — but Blake Hillman is there. Him and Plant have been leading us in minutes, around 25 a night, so it’s not like we’re going to ask him to do more. It’s Fear, Mostrom and the two freshmen are going to get more minutes. They’re going to have to be ready to go. And I feel pretty good about it.”
North Dakota is built like Western Michigan, which overcame 4-2 deficits in each game to sweep DU Nov. 3-4 in Kalamazoo, Mich.
“Really deep, hard team to play against,” Montgomery said of the Fighting Hawks. “Very tenacious on the forecheck and their commitment to play without the puck. They’re a physical team. It’s going to be a good challenge for us after having played a team like this — Western (Michigan) — where we didn’t have success two weeks earlier.”
Footnote. Montgomery and his wife Emily welcomed their fourth child, daughter Olivia Kate, to the family Tuesday — a day in which the coach gave his team off to study for finals. “She’s a coach’s daughter!” Jim Montgomery joked about the well-timed natural delivery. Olivia Kate weighed in at 6 pounds, 14 ounces and she and Emily are doing well. “It was our easiest delivery of our four kids, and the healthiest baby,” the coach said.