DENVER — One team definitely had something tangible to play for, and it showed from the first drop of the puck.
Denver kept alive its narrow hopes for a WCHA home playoff series with a 6-3 win over Alaska-Anchorage in a game that was all but over after the first period.
Combined with Wisconsin and MSU-Mankato losses, the Pioneers inched closer to the all-important fifth spot in the WCHA. Denver is now tied for sixth with MSU-Mankato, only one point behind fifth-place Wisconsin.
“We’re looking at this as one down, one to go,” said Pioneer head coach George Gwozdecky. “The league race is so tight, and this game was extremely important tonight. We got off to a really good start; I didn’t like the way we finished the game, but we built up enough cushion. It makes tomorrow night’s game even more important. We have to be better than we were tonight.”
The first period provided that comfort zone for the Pioneers, as they jumped out to a 4-0 lead on the Seawolves. Center Chris Paradise opened the scoring as he deflected a Judd Stauss slapshot past Alaska goalie Chris King, giving Denver a 1-0 lead at 6:04. Center Kevin Doell followed with a net shot from the top of the crease to give the Pioneers a 2-0 lead at 8:31 of the first period. Right wing Greg Barber and defenseman Ryan Caldwell assisted.
It was all the momentum Denver would need this night, but they didn’t stop there.
After killing an Alaska-Anchorage power play, the Pioneers scored on a delayed penalty when defenseman Aaron MacKenzie delivered from the top right of the zone, assisted by Paradise and right wing Matt Weber. To close out the first-period scoring, defenseman Bryan Vines assisted on Doell’s second score of the first period as the puck was poked in the net through a pileup in front of the crease.
That turned out to be the game-winning goal for Denver.
In the decisive first period, Denver outshot Alaska-Anchorage 13-2. The Seawolves fought back, but the deficit was too much for them to overcome.
“They came out and played a great first period,” said Alaska-Anchorage head coach Dean Talafous. “Obviously, we weren’t sharp, but I think that had more to do with how well they played. I also thought the second and third periods were a totally different game.”
In that second period, the game did shift momentarily. Alaska-Anchorage got on the board at 12:18 when left wing Mike Scott beat Denver goalie Adam Berkhoel with a slapshot from the middle left. Right wing Peter Chytka and center Vladimir Novak assisted on the score.
However, Denver responded exactly two minutes later when Caldwell picked up his second assist of the night, as Weber beat King amidst plenty of confusion in front of the net.
“We’re a much better team when we score first,” said Paradise. “When we don’t, we struggle. Tonight we were fortunate in the first period to bury all the chances we had. After that, we kind of sat back and watched the game and didn’t do the things we’re good at.”
Overall, there were five penalties in the second period, including a five-minute penalty on Alaska-Anchorage defenseman Corey Hessler for hitting from behind. Hessler also received a ten-minute game misconduct penalty for the hit.
“It’s unusual when you play Anchorage to get involved in a penalty-filled game like that — both teams played with a little lack of discipline, especially in the second part of the game,” said Gwozdecky.
Denver capitalized on Hessler’s penalty with a score 2:24 into the third period. With 36 seconds left on the power play, Barber broke in from the right flat and beat King with a wrist shot. Caldwell and Paradise assisted, giving each player three points on the night.
Alaska-Anchorage closed out the scoring with two goals late in the third period. Scott scored his second goal of the night, this one unassisted at 15:00, and center Steve Cygan tallied on a power play to make it 6-3 with 57 seconds left.
The Seawolves played well enough to close the shots-on-goal gap to 23-21, but the final score still left them behind.
“It’s not a win, it’s not something to be happy about, but we could have run and hid or rolled over and played dead,” said Talafous. “Getting into playoff time, you have to try to play as many good periods as you can throughout the weekend and see if it’s enough at the end. You might have a bad period, and you have to recover. I thought we recovered, just not well enough.”
The two teams play again on Saturday.
“We came in with the approach that we had to win every game from here on in, and to put up four goals in the first period was huge, but we have to be more concerned about the three goals we gave up,” said Caldwell. “You can’t sit back in this league or you’ll get buried by any team.”