DENVER — It all comes down to the final game for the Denver Pioneers and the Wisconsin Badgers. Somewhere, the hockey gods are smiling, for this is the way it was meant to be.
Denver held up its end of the bargain with an 8-2 rout of last-place Minnesota-Duluth, while the Badgers took care of Michigan Tech 5-3. Wisconsin holds fifth place by one point over Denver in the race for WCHA playoff home ice.
The Pioneers (18-13-4, 13-11-3 WCHA) hold the tiebreak edge on the Badgers, and they’re hoping Michigan Tech can at least play Wisconsin to a tie on Saturday night. If Denver can complete a sweep of the Bulldogs (6-25-4, 3-21-3 WCHA), it could host the Badgers next weekend in the conference playoffs — if Michigan Tech comes through for the Pioneers.
Big plays at key moments in the first 30 minutes fueled the Pioneers to their third straight win, allowing them to pull away from upset-minded UMD.
“There are always little key plays in the game that allow you to look back and say that might have been a factor in the outcome,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “This game was still in doubt in the early part of the second period.”
While the final score was indicative of the blowout, Denver took advantage of some opportunities while snuffing out chance after chance for the Bulldogs. The result? UMD dropped into a deep hole, and the game was effectively over.
“We scored late in the first to give us a little bit of a cushion,” Gwozdecky said. “We came out in the second and played OK, but [freshman goalie] Adam Berkhoel makes a huge save when we’re up by a goal, to keep us up by a goal.
“Shortly thereafter, we score and we start to build on that. I thought that was one of the game turners.”
Denver got on the board first with a slap-shot score by junior defenseman Bryan Vines, but the Bulldogs responded quickly. After a five-minute major on Pioneer freshman wing Greg Keith for charging, UMD notched a power-play goal on sophomore center Beau Geisler’s squibber past Berkhoel.
The teams continued to battle and trade shots for the rest of the period. Bulldog freshman goalie Adam Coole made several outstanding saves, but with 44 seconds left in the period, the Denver offensive onslaught finally caught up to UMD. After Coole made two great stops, senior wing Bjorn Engstrom was able to get the puck past him for the 2-1 Denver lead.
“We’ve giving up a lot of those this year,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. “They got momentum off that, and they certainly had a great second period and put the game away. We didn’t compete; we didn’t play well. Give them credit — they capitalized.”
As Sandelin noted, the pain continued into the second period for UMD as Berkhoel turned away three excellent Bulldog scoring chances with smart positioning and great stick work. Meanwhile, Denver was able to push a power-play goal across when freshman wing Connor James scored his seventh goal of the season at 7:58. The Pioneers then went up 4-1 when sophomore wing J.J. Hartmann scored at 9:54.
Minnesota-Duluth called an immediate timeout, but the Bulldogs were never able to recover from the sequence of events that began with Engstrom’s game-breaking goal at the end of the first period.
“They were just a better team tonight, and we weren’t there,” Sandelin said. “We didn’t have enough guys show up. We have to have a better performance for 60 minutes whether we win or lose. The way we played tonight we’re not going to beat anybody.”
Denver chased Coole after Kevin Doell scored his ninth goal of the year later in the second period. Sophomore Rob Anderson took over in net, but that didn’t matter to the Pioneers — they scored again at 15:24 of the second on sophomore wing Greg Barber’s seventh goal of the season to make the score 6-1.
The third period was basically an afterthought, featuring a lot of penalties and no significant momentum shifts. The Bulldogs added a goal at 11:32, when freshman center Jerrid Reinholz beat Berkhoel for his first NCAA career goal.
Denver responded at 13:47 when senior defenseman and team captain Judd Stauss scored his first goal of the year scored to make it 7-2. James added a late breakaway goal to provide the final margin.
“We got some momentum going into the second period,” Berkhoel said. “And then we got all those goals, and the team played more comfortably. They were getting a lot of shots on me, so I was still in the game and still able to focus pretty well.”
The Denver freshman had 29 saves, but many of those were tough stops that sapped UMD of its confidence and energy when the game was still close. Combine that reality with the Bulldogs’ own problems in the net, and it’s clear why Minnesota-Duluth is 1-11-1 in its last 13 games.
Weak goaltending and defense has plagued the Bulldogs all season, as they are last in the WCHA in team defense, giving up 4.21 goals per game coming into tonight’s contest. Conversely, Denver has now scored 19 goals in its last three games, its offense clearly coming alive in time for the postseason.
In fact, in their last three games against the bottom-dwellers of the WCHA, the Pioneers have been able to jump out to big leads and sustain their level of play for the entire game, holding their opponents to mere six goals in that stretch, despite have frequently huge leads early in the game.
Whether Denver’s offensive and defensive awakening will carry the team to home ice in the WCHA playoffs and beyond remains to be seen, but the Pioneers do know they’re playing great hockey at the right time.
“We will really try to concentrate on what we have to do over the next 60 minutes,” Gwozdecky said. “But it’s nice to see us scoring some goals and putting the puck in the net.”