DENVER — Saturday night was nothing like Friday night. Depending on whom you ask, that was either a good thing or a bad thing.
The Denver Pioneers won a 3-2 dogfight over the visiting Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves in a close game that wasn’t decided until the final moments — a stark contrast from Friday’s Pioneer blowout win, but with the same result in the standings nonetheless.
The win moves No. 8-ranked Denver to 4-0-0 (2-0-0 WCHA). The Seawolves fall to 1-4-1 (0-2-0).
“This was a hard-fought win,” Pioneer head coach George Gwozdecky said. “This was a good test for us. I thought tonight was a very hard, demanding game, the kind of game that maybe the puck isn’t bouncing like we wanted it to. Things may not have been with us like we wanted them to.
“That’s the time you really have to bear down, keep your composure, keep your poise and play a smart defense game.”
And that Denver did.
The Pioneers broke a 2-2 tie in the third period on a slap shot score from junior wing Greg Barber. Taking a pass from sophomore wing Lukas Dora, Barber streaked down the left side of the ice and rocketed the puck past Alaska-Anchorage freshman goalie Kevin Reiter from the middle left zone.
The goal culminated a comeback for Denver, who had trailed 2-1 earlier in the game.
“The puck was kind of wobbly there, and I gave a slap shot that went through the goalie’s legs, kind of squeaked through there,” Barber said. “Things weren’t going too well for us. We kept on working hard, and it helped us definitely.”
After Barber’s game-winning goal, the two teams traded hits and penalties with very few solid scoring chances. After Friday night’s debacle, Seawolves head coach John Hill was pleased with the effort from his team, if not the result.
“Any time you can keep a team to three goals, you have a chance to win the game,” Hill said. “I wouldn’t call it a moral victory, but I think there were a lot of positives tonight. Anytime you leave with positives you have to feel good about yourselves.”
The Seawolves made an admirable charge in the final seconds, pulling Reiter for the extra skater. But Denver sophomore goalie Adam Berkhoel came up big with the help of his teammates, keeping Alaska-Anchorage out of the net when he needed to.
The final rush was right in line with the tough periods before it. The first period was hard-fought session, full of big hits, hard shots and impressive saves. Overall, there were seven penalties in the first period, and both teams played outstanding on the penalty kill. Excellent defense helped the teams fight to a 1-1 tie behind the goaltending of Reiter and Pioneers sophomore Adam Berkhoel.
The Pioneers took the early lead just two minutes into the game. Playing 4-on-4 after matching roughing penalties, Denver sophomore wing Connor James beat Reiter to a puck deep in the Seawolves’ zone. James made a sweet pass to senior center Chris Paradise, who scored his first goal of the season over Reiter’s outstretched stick.
After two penalties to each team went unpunished, Alaska-Anchorage got on the board with 4:17 left in the period. Junior wing Petr Chytka was able to control a bouncing puck in front of the net and beat Berkhoel to tie the score.
“Every team in the WCHA is a quality team,” Barber said. “There’s no given night you’re going to win. We have to come to play or else we’re not going to win. It came down to working hard to get those bounces tonight.”
The second period also ended in a tie, as the two teams against matched penalties, goals and excellent defense. The Seawolves took the lead 2:51 into the period on a beautiful play behind the net. Sophomore center Vladimir Novak sent the puck right in front of the net where Chytka put the puck over Berkhoel for a 2-1 lead.
Alaska-Anchorage held the lead for eight testy minutes, as the Pioneers tried to tie the game. Reiter made several outstanding saves, including a stone-cold denial of James on a free approach. James took a pass right on net, but Reiter stuffed his shot attempt.
However, the Pioneers finally broke through on a power play goal by James. Junior wing Matt Weber fed the puck to James right in front of the net again, but this time James went to the side of the net, Reiter committed low and James beat him high for the tying goal.
But no one faulted Reiter for the loss. After giving up seven goals on Friday, Hill was pleased with the play of his backup goalie on Saturday.
“I thought Reiter gave us a chance to win the game tonight,” Hill said. “I thought he came up really big in the second period, and he did a really good job of handling the puck.”
Denver plays a home-and-home two-game set with Colorado College next weekend, while Alaska-Anchorage hosts Minnesota-Duluth for a two-game set in Alaska.