DULUTH, Minn. — What a difference a month makes.
That could be the theme of Denver’s season thus far. It was just a month ago when the Pioneers were 2-7 overall and struggling in the bottom half of the WCHA at 2-5.
But that was then, and this is now, because they haven’t lost since. Saturday night, Denver (9-7-2 overall, 8-5-1 WCHA) jumped into second place in the WCHA after posting a 2-1 victory over Minnesota-Duluth (4-13-1 overall, 1-10-1 WCHA). The win extended DU’s unbeaten streak to nine games.
“I’m really proud of this team,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “Some people may have given up on us [earlier in the year], but the players showed a lot of perseverance.”
That perseverance seemed to be put on display Saturday night, as the Pioneers had to come from behind to beat the Bulldogs in front of 3,228 spectators at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.
After giving up the game’s first goal in the second period, Denver scored two goals in the first five minutes of the third period to earn the victory.
Kelly Popadynetz’s eighth goal of the season made it a tie game 92 seconds into the final stanza. The senior center battled for a rebound that appeared just to the left of Bulldog goaltender Rob Anderson, and lifted a shot that snuck past Anderson’s glove side.
The game-winner was scored less than three minutes later, as sophomore center David Neale also scored on a rebound. His fifth goal of the season came after Anderson stopped a Greg Barber shot that came from the faceoff circle to his right. The puck deflected to Anderson’s left, and Neale backhanded it into the net before the goaltender could get back into position.
Derek Derow scored UMD’s lone goal at the 8:03 mark of the second period after pouncing on a loose puck in the high slot. His shot swept past goaltender Wade Dubielewicz’s left shoulder and resulted in his fourth goal of the season.
After taking the lead in the third, DU relied on strong defense and key saves by Dubielewicz to preserve the victory. It didn’t come easy, as UMD was given two power-play opportunities that it failed to convert. Overall, Denver successfully killed off all six of the Bulldog man advantages, as did UMD with all three of Denver’s power plays.
Denver also outshot UMD 26-24.
Gwozdecky called it a very gratifying victory.
“I don’t know if we’ve been in two tougher games all year long,” he said. “[We] seemed to get stronger as the game went on. I’m proud of how our guys responded.”
UMD coach Scott Sandelin said his team is also improving, but could have played with more intensity toward the end of Saturday night’s game.
“I didn’t think we came out as strong in the third period,” he said. “Sometimes [we] play the game afraid to lose.”
Gwozdecky also took time to praise UMD.
“I give them full accolades, they didn’t give us too much,” Gwozdecky said. “That team will be heard from in the second half of the season.”
The Denver coach is also very confident with his team’s chances in the next few months.
“We’re ready to make a run at the Sioux,” Gwozdecky said.
Saturday night’s victory and a 1-1 tie Friday night give Denver 17 points in the conference this season, four points behind league leader North Dakota, and one point ahead of four teams tied for third place.
Both teams now begin their holiday break and won’t return to action until they host their own holiday tournaments. The Pioneers will compete in the Norwest Denver Cup Dec. 29 and 30, while the Bulldogs will host the Silverado Shootout on Dec. 28 and 29.