Tonight a new chapter will be written in the book of college rivalries, as the CSU club hockey team takes on archenemy Colorado at the Budweiser Event Center in Loveland.
In the Rocky Mountain Face-Off, the team’s biggest rivalry of the season, the importance of playing the Buffs is not lost on those involved.
“The rivalry between CU and CSU has been intense for several years. Our guys circle the CU games on their calendars at the beginning of the season,” said head coach Eric Sunness. “I am convinced that people would buy tickets to watch the two schools play ping pong against one another.”
Each time the teams meet, the arena is at full capacity and the crowd never lets up, according to Sunness. And both squads have a reason to be fired up for this game.
Currently the Rams (22-8-1) are in first place of the west division of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, a position they have held for most of the season. But a loss could cost them their high ranking. Their opponent, CU (20-10-1), is ranked fourth in the same division, and has good motivation to win this game – beating CSU could skyrocket them to the top.
CSU won the two earlier meetings 8-3 and 3-2, respectively, but prior performance does not immediately give CSU the win.
“This has always been a great rivalry,” said coach Kelly Newton./ “In my three years at CSU, neither team has swept the series.”
Last year CSU owned the series 2-1-1 and the year before lost it 1-2-1. Both teams know that in every Rocky Mountain Face-Off anyone can leave the ice victorious.
“I would expect CU to be a hard working disciplined team under the guidance of Coach Fikis, for whom I have a great deal of respect,” said Sunness.
This year could be the year for a sweep for the Rams, however, with stellar play on both ends of the ice. So far this season CSU has allowed 80 fewer goals than they have scored, putting the puck in the net a total of 185 times.
Of those goals, 27 have come from team scoring leader A.J. Hau. Superb goalie play by Mike Dlugos, who is ranked 17 in total minutes but has zero shutouts, has also allowed the team to play out in front most of the season.
“Taking care of business in our defensive end and goaltending will be the key to our success,” said Sunness. “Fortunately our team has great depth that has contributed to our success all season.”
CU is not far behind in scoring, with 65 more goals than they have allowed, for a total of 176. Behind leading scorer Conor Williams’ 28 goals, the Buffs hope they can put some in the net early and keep the powerful Ram offense on their own end of the ice.
“It’s the biggest game of the year that we have,” said team captain Tim Stiller. “We look forward to it all year. We’re pretty excited about it.”
The idea of beating such a large rival is not the only reason the team has to be excited. For the first time in the team’s long history it will be playing at the largest hockey venue around: the Budweiser Event Center. The 5,600-seat-arena will be the largest to host a CSU home game.
“I think it will be a whole new experience,” said defensemen Alex Jurhs. “A lot of us have never played in front of that many people. But I think it will give a boost, especially in front of our home crowd.”
Playing a game at Budweiser may mean more than just getting to the national tournament or losing a spot in the ranking, either of which could happen as a result. The Rocky Mountain Face-Off could also mean the elevation of CSU to a D-I hockey team, or at least, the first step.
“It’s awesome. We have always wanted to play there,” said assistant captain Adam Havens. “It’s the biggest rink in our area. It’s definitely a stepping stone of that ultimate goal (becoming a D-I program).”
With the backing of the Ram Hockey Group and Colorado Eagles, including what an intern described as “begging,” the game will be hosted at the center.
Hoping to prove that there is a strong hockey base in the Northern Colorado area that could support a D-1 program, the team hopes to sell out the game and make it worth Budweiser’s effort.
If the arena fills and the concession stands are flooded with people looking for popcorn, hotdogs and beer, there is a possibility that the folks at Budweiser would see a product worth displaying at their venue, making the possibility of a D-I program all the more likely at CSU.
“It’s very exciting for us as a program, for the guys, and hopefully for the school and the community, said Newton. “We’d like to see this become an annual event between us and CU, and possibly UNC down the road.”
After the conclusion of tonight’s game, the two teams won’t wait long before they either seek revenge or attempt another win, as the teams are scheduled to play again Feb. 7, in Boulder.
Sports writer Keith Robertson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.