DENVER — It was Senior Night at Magness Arena for Denver. Unfortunately for them, the Pioneers did not get the preferred gift they were hoping for from Michigan Tech.
Denver (19-13-4 overall, 14-11-3 WCHA) did what it could on its end, beating Minnesota-Duluth 3-1 to finish the season. But Wisconsin shut the door on the Pioneers’ fleeting hopes for home ice in the WCHA playoffs, defeating Michigan Tech 1-0 to claim fifth place in the conference and leaving Denver with a sixth-place finish by one point.
The Pioneers will travel to Wisconsin next weekend for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, while the Bulldogs (6-26-4 overall, 3-22-3 WCHA) travel to face WCHA regular-season champion North Dakota in their opening playoff series.
“I have to give full credit to Duluth, because they played a tough game,” said Pioneer head coach George Gwozdecky. “We all knew there was a great chance that the game was not going to be anywhere near what it was like last night. It was a tough defensive battle, physical and strong. Again, one of the key factors for us was goaltending.”
Denver broke open a tight 1-1 game in the third period with two goals, the first on a power play. Senior assistant captain Bjorn Engstrom got the puck past UMD goalie Rob Anderson on an assist from Connor James, and just 46 seconds into the third, Denver was on top of the Bulldogs for good.
Pioneer right wing Greg Keith notched a goal later in third period when he beat Anderson from the middle left zone. Anderson got his pads on the puck, but it trickled behind him into the net to give Denver a 3-1 lead. After outplaying the Pioneers for two periods, the Bulldogs suddenly found themselves down and out.
UMD might have lost both games in this series, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Both nights the Bulldogs pressed the Pioneers hard, but just couldn’t come up with the big plays when they needed them. Last night, they held on through 25 minutes before succumbing; tonight they played great hockey for 40 minutes before fading.
“Even when they got the power-play goal, I still thought we could win the game, because we were playing well enough to beat them,” UMD head coach Scott Sandelin said. “I thought we outplayed them for two periods.”
Sophomore goalie Wade Dubielewicz (12-9-3) was the star of the game for Denver. He finished the regular season as the WCHA goals against average leader (2.24), and he showed why tonight, turning away 32 Bulldog shots for the win. Numerous times in the first two periods Dubielewicz made great stops, keeping UMD from taking advantage of dominant play and aggressiveness.
“Our defensemen did a good job of tying guys up in front so they couldn’t really get to the rebounds that were left there,” Dubielewicz said. “You have to give Duluth a lot of credit — tough loss last night, they came out and played a heck of game tonight. It could have gone either way.”
The game was a scrapper’s dream for 40 minutes. The first period was a hard-fought draw, featuring a lot of shots on goal and tremendous goaltending from both Dubielewicz and Anderson. Both teams had solid scoring chances, including Pioneer center Kevin Doell who hit the post with a short shot from the flat.
Bulldog right wing Jon Francisco had a breakaway opportunity, but Dubielewicz stopped the first shot, and Francisco fired wide on the rebound attempt. Overall, the period saw UMD outshoot Denver 16-10, although the Bulldogs were 0-for-2 on the power play in the first.
The Pioneers got on the scoreboard first at 2:46 into the second period. Pretty cross-ice passing caught Anderson out of position, and left wing Bryce Wallnutt beat him after taking the pass from right wing Connor James.
However, the Bulldogs responded a few minutes later when Dubielewicz stopped left wing Andy Reierson’s slapshot from the top left zone. The rebound came right out in front of the net where center Mark Gunderson planted it in the net to tie the game at 1-1.
There were a lot of penalties in the second period, but neither team could capitalize. Like the first period, stellar goaltending kept the game tied. Both Dubielewicz and Anderson stopped shot after shot, keeping both teams frustrated and hungry for a score.
“Bottom line, we won the hockey game, we’re going to the playoffs,” Dubielewicz said. “We’re starting to hit the peak of our game. At times in the first 40 minutes tonight, there were guys who weren’t going as hard we would have liked, but we picked it up in the third, showed a little heart and came through.”
Through the first two periods, UMD dominated shots on goal by a count of 30-16, but Dubielewicz was able to keep his team even. It was quite a turnaround for the Bulldogs from the previous night’s effort, but it still wasn’t to be.
“I thought we played a good game,” Sandelin said. “It’s frustrating because it’s happened all year — we never get a break, we never get a call to go our way. I was happy with our effort. I thought our guys competed hard tonight, and we played much better than we did the other night.”
With league play wrapped up, both teams can focus on their road playoff series, with the goal of reaching the WCHA Final Five. Denver played Wisconsin twice this season, winning and tying the Badgers on the road. Next weekend’s series between the two teams promises to be the most even of the WCHA playoff slate.
“It’s going to be a very interesting matchup, because they’ve got a very big, strong, skilled team both on the blue line and up front,” Gwozdecky said. “We’re not as big, we’re not as strong, but we think we can create a lot of speed and pressure on the goal. It should be one of the highlight series of the first round.”
For UMD, the road will be a little tougher, as the Bulldogs were 0-4 against North Dakota this season, giving up five goals a game to the Sioux. Minnesota-Duluth hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1993, and they’ll need a miracle to get there this year
“It’s not going to be easy for anyone to go into anyone’s rink and win two games,” Sandelin said. “The key game is Friday; you win Friday’s game, and funny things can happen. It’s going to be tough, but I’m actually looking forward to it.”