MANKATO, Minn. — Despite losing their starting goalie and falling down 3-1 in the first period, the Denver Pioneers fought back to edge MSU-Mankato, 5-4, Friday night.
Denver’s comeback was led by left winger Matt Weber, who tallied two goals and one assist, and solid play in the third period by backup goalie Adam Berkhoel.
“I’m very proud and pleased by the fact that our team can come back after putting ourselves in a hole like we did,” said Denver head coach George Gwozdecky.
The game started quickly with a first period filled with defensive breakdowns, big hits, and seven goals. MSU-Mankato (3-6-0, 3-6-0 WCHA) capitalized on Denver giveaways in the defensive zone to score three goals on five shots in the period.
Sophomore Jerry Cunningham started the scoring for the Mavericks 6:24 into the first period, taking a crisp pass from right winger Shane Joseph behind the net and pushing the puck between Denver goalie Wade Dubielewicz’s legs. Freshman Cole Bassett added the other assist on the goal.
The Pioneers (2-5-0, 2-3-0 WCHA) suffered a huge loss 7:48 into the first period when MSU forward Josh Kern came in on goal with a breakaway. Dubielewicz dove out to make an aggressive poke-check and Kern crashed into the Denver goalie, injuring his shoulder and forcing him out of the game. Berkhoel came in to replace Dubielewicz.
Berkhoel’s night started rockily as Denver’s Judd Stauss gave the puck away to MSU senior Peter Holoien. Holoien passed the puck to Freshman Tim Jackman, who tallied his fifth goal of the season at the 8:01 mark of the first period to give the Mavericks a 2-0 lead.
However, Denver wasn’t about to give up. After sustaining great pressure in the Maverick’s zone, Pioneer senior Kelly Popadynetz scored in front of the goal with a tap-in 25 seconds later. Popadynetz finished with a goal and two assists on the night.
The Mavericks cashed in on another defensive giveaway 23 seconds later. Cunningham stole the puck from a Denver defenseman and fired the puck high above Berkhoel’s shoulder for his second goal of the game.
The Mavericks had an opportunity to go up by three goals when Denver’s Ryan Caldwell was called for hooking. However, Denver ended an impressive penalty kill, in which it allowed no shots on goal, with its second goal of the night. MSU’s Andy Hedlund broke his stick on a slapshot as Caldwell’s time expired, and Pioneer junior David Neale stole the puck and passed it to Caldwell right as he exited the penalty box.
Caldwell took the puck in all alone on MSU goalie Todd Kelzenberg and beat him with a wrist shot, which would end up the turning point of the game.
Less than two minutes later, Denver tied the game on a goal by Bjorn Engstrom. 40 seconds after Engstrom’s goal, Weber put the Pioneers up 4-3 by completing a two-on-one rush with freshman Connor James.
The second period continued with big hits, and eventually defensive breakdowns lead to goals by both teams.
5:24 in to the second, Mankato’s Nate Mauer converted a pass by teammate B.J. Abel into their fourth goal. Mauer led a two-on-one rush down the ice and kept the puck himself, tucking it under Berkhoel’s leg to tie the score once again.
MSU kept the pressure on, but stellar saves by Berkhoel kept the Mavericks from finding the back of the net. Then, with 2:03 left in the period, Weber scored the eventual game-winner on another two-on-one rush. Taking a pass from Popadynetz, Weber backhanded the puck between Kelzenberg’s legs for the final goal of the game.
The Mavericks came within inches of a goal three minutes into the third period. Berkhoel, controlling the puck behind his net, made an innocent enough pass to a Denver winger, but Mankato’s Justin Martin stole the puck and fed teammate Tyler Baines for an empty-net opportunity. Berkhoel was able to dive back into the crease and stop the puck with his stick.
“I just made a bad play,” said Berkhoel. “I passed it off [to] the winger, the guy jumped on it, passed it up front, and I just made a stab at it with my stick, and I got it. I can’t believe he didn’t score on it. I thought for sure it was a goal.”
Berkhoel made more key saves early in the period, and Denver’s defense closed in on MSU’s potent offense to preserve the victory. He finished with 21 saves for the Pioneers.
MSU coach Troy Jutting was upset with his team’s lack of defensive presence.
“We made some bad decisions, and some of it wasn’t our defensemen, it was our forwards. That really hurt us. We gave them two tap-in goals in the first period, and they’re too good to do that to. They play a good, strong defensive game from start to finish, and we didn’t tonight.”
Gwozdecky also commented on his team’s lack of defense throughout the game, noting that they would “have to work on that tomorrow.”
The two teams, who played in front of a crowd of 3,545 at the Midwest Wireless Civic Center, will finish their series Saturday night with game time set for 7:05 p.m. Central.