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Colorado College savors big step forward this season, but Tigers want a shot at NCAA glory

COLORADO SPRINGS — When Colorado College goaltender Kaidan Mbereko skated out for warmups at Magness Arena in the final installment of the Gold Pan rivalry earlier this month, there was an interesting message waiting for him.

Someone was standing in the front row, directly behind Mbereko’s net, with a white sign that read, “No. 30’s washed, just like his brother.” Mbereko noted the sign, but also knew the person behind it. Mbereko’s older brother, Zak, is a University of Denver student. The creator of the sign was one of Zak’s friends.

“I’ve got a DM from the guy with a picture of my brother, him and the sign,” Kaidan said. “It was a funny moment.”

Both of the Mbereko brothers will be rooting for the same team this weekend, as the lines in a heated college hockey rivalry will be blurred Friday night. Colorado College has taken a huge step forward in Kris Mayotte’s third year in charge of the program, but needs some help.

The Tigers have leapt from winning nine games in Mayotte’s first season to the brink of the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011. They are currently 14th in the NCAA Pairwise rankings, and squarely on the bubble for a 16-team tournament that will definitely include two automatic qualifiers from well outside the top of the rankings.

One of the other teams on the bubble is St. Cloud State at No. 16. The Huskies play Friday night against DU in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff. Step one for the Tigers’ NCAA dreams to come true this weekend is for the Pioneers to knock out St. Cloud State.

“It’s going to be crazy,” CC’s leading scorer Noah Laba said. “We’ve got our Denver hats, our Boston College and Quinnipiac hats on. We’re rooting for those guys. It’s that time of year, so we’re crossing our fingers and hoping we get another shot.”

Mayotte took over a proud program with a distinct lack of recent success. Selling tradition from before most of these players were born is hard. Selling the chance to play in Ed Robson Arena, which opened in Mayotte’s first year and is a state-of-the-art shrine to college hockey, helps a lot.

The freshman class from last season, which featured Mbereko and Laba, was a building block. The group in its first season, led by Zaccharya Wisdom, is another. CC’s top five scorers and Mbereko are all from those two classes.

“We have the best goalie in the country, I believe,” said Mayotte, who was named the NCHC coach of the year Thursday. “That’s obviously a huge piece. It puts you in every game. It keeps you in every game. It allows our team to go after the game. When your team has a goalie you trust, it doesn’t feel like they have to be perfect and you can take some risks.

“Our depth scoring has been way better. Our top line has been phenomenal. This is probably the first time we’ve had a top line that can score with anybody’s top guys. And our ability to win faceoffs has been top five in the country, top team in the league. When you have a goalie as good as ours and you start with the puck most of the time, that’s kind of been our recipe.”

There were growing pains last season, including a 13-game winless streak that players pointed to, but maybe not for the reasons some might think. The Tigers felt like they were playing well and improving, despite going nearly two months without a win.

They snapped the skid by winning twice at Western Michigan to start the NCHC playoffs, then knocking off DU in the semifinals and getting within one game of a Cinderella run.

This season, the Tigers haven’t needed any glass slippers. They won all four games against North Dakota, currently No. 3 in the Pairwise rankings, including a program-changing weekend in Grand Forks, N.D., when the Fighting Hawks were ranked No. 1 in the nation.

The Gold Pan series was another sign of progress. DU waxed the Tigers in both November games, but CC won 4-3 and lost 4-3 two weekends ago, collecting another key win over a top-5 opponent.

“It’s definitely been quite a journey. It hasn’t been perfect for sure,” Mbereko said. “I think just the biggest thing from last year to now is just being able to take those lessons and adversity and not really falter, just be able to go with it and learn from it and be able to kind of overcome that.”

Colorado College could have played its way into the NCAA tournament last weekend, but two losses in three games at Robson to Omaha left the Tigers in this precarious position. The two biggest results for CC’s chances would be DU, ranked fourth, beating No. 16 St. Cloud State and No. 7 Quinnipiac winning the ECAC tournament.

The hopes now are simple: The Tigers want to meet on Sunday, practice on Monday and get on a plane on Tuesday. If that happens, it will be an exclamation point on a remarkable turnaround season.

If it doesn’t, there will be disappointment. But there will also be a recognition that Colorado College has found its way back to national relevance and this young team could be even better next year.

“It’s a culmination of a lot of hard work, and then bringing in two really good recruiting classes that have been able to be impactful for us at a level that has allowed us to win,” Mayotte said. “I think what this team has been able to grow into, how they’ve been able to perform against the best teams in the country, maybe even slightly exceeded my expectations.”

DU in Frozen Faceoff

The University of Denver has won a national title and reached the Frozen Four a second time in the past five seasons. What the Pioneers haven’t done in that span is win on Friday night at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.

The Pioneers are No. 4 in the country and safely in the NCAA tournament, but a No. 1 seed could be won or lost this weekend when they face St. Cloud State in St. Paul, Minn.

“We’re playing St. Cloud and they have to win to keep their season alive,” DU coach David Carle said. “It will be a great test for us. We’re certainly not taking them lightly. We’re going up there to put our best foot forward and try to win a trophy. We think we have a young team that needs to continue to learn how to do that.”

Losing on Friday night last season to rival Colorado College cost the Pioneers a shot at the No. 3 overall seed, and DU was upset in the first round by Cornell. The Pioneers could get Carter King back this weekend, but second-leading scorer Massimo Rizzo is doubtful and remains week-to-week with an injury.

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