DENVER — Defense and missed opportunities were the themes as Minnesota handed Denver its first WCHA loss, as well as its first home loss, Friday night in a hard-fought 2-1 game.
With the win, the No. 2 Gophers gained two points on the No. 3 Pioneers in conference play, and with another victory Saturday night, Minnesota (12-1-3, 6-1-2 WCHA) can draw even with Denver (11-2-0, 8-1-0 WCHA) in the league standings.
Gopher senior goaltender Adam Hauser was the difference in the game, turning the potent Pioneers away again and again.
“When you’re on the road, you need quality goaltending,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. “Hauser gave us that opportunity, and we knew it was going to be a tight affair. Fortunately for us, we were able to get two and win a 2-1 game.”
Hauser made 30 saves on the night, but his ability to repeatedly deny Denver second chances, let alone many quality first chances, was the key to the game. He was quick to share the credit with his teammates.
“The team played well overall. I made one save, and they were there to clear the rebounds all night,” Hauser said. “That’s kind of the key. The guys did a very good job tonight.”
Minnesota jumped out to the first-period lead in a key stretch that was a microcosm of the game. Denver’s Matt Weber found himself with the puck deep in front of the net, but Hauser was able to stop him cold. Within a minute, the Gophers used the momentum of Hauser’s big play to get on the scoreboard first.
With Pioneer goaltender Wade Dubielewicz occupied by a scrum to his right side, Minnesota’s Paul Martin suddenly found himself all alone on the right of Dubielewicz with the puck and a clear look at the net. He converted to give the Gophers the 1-0 lead.
Denver missed several opportunities in the first period, going 0-for-3 on the power play and missing two other golden chances when the Pioneers couldn’t put the stick on the puck. Credit Hauser, who made several great saves early and no doubt got into the heads of the Pioneers.
“We had a couple of good chances, but Hauser played well tonight — you have to give a lot of credit there,” said Denver senior Chris Paradise.
The second period saw the Gophers extend their lead to 2-0, despite more missed opportunities for both teams. Hauser again stood strong, stopping chances left and right without giving the Pioneers much to work with. Meanwhile, Dubielewicz was doing his part, although one mistake was all Minnesota needed to score what turned out to be the game-winner.
Gopher Erik Wendell gathered in the puck in the left corner. He went straight to the net, and although his angle seemed to be particularly poor, he blew the puck past Denver defenseman Jesse Cook and through Dubielewicz to score.
“Bad goal,” Dubielewicz said. “He beat me five-hole, I should have had it. I was thinking a little bit back door, but he shot it straight on me, and it slipped by.”
Pioneer head coach George Gwozdecky called time out immediately to settle down his squad, and it seemed to work, although it was not immediately apparent on the scoreboard — where it mattered most.
“I don’t think we played very well, and I think we got lucky at times — they hit a few posts, and the game could have gotten out of hand,” said Dubielewicz. “But we hung in there, and I think we outplayed them for most of the second half of the game. We realized we had a good opportunity tonight, and we blew it.”
The third period was quiet, although Denver’s play did pick up. Hauser was still stoning the Pioneers until freshman wing Luke Fulghum made a great play on a bouncing puck to bring the game to a 2-1 score.
“It hit my blocker, that’s what I was really mad at,” Hauser said. “It hit me, and it still went in. I hate that. I feel like I go out there and make that first save, and I’m calm. I can depend on my guys, and they can depend on me.”
With the score 2-1, the final minutes played out tensely for both teams, but despite pulling Dubielewicz at 18:42 of the third period and subsequently having two faceoffs in Minnesota’s zone, the Pioneers couldn’t complete the comeback.
“We had a lot of opportunities to put the game away, but we didn’t,” said Lucia. “It’s a credit to them and a credit to Dubielewicz. They found themselves there, and we had to hold them off for the last five or six minutes.”
“We had a little puck luck around the net, but we were due for a few bounces to go our way,” he added. “We played well last weekend (in a loss and a tie to St. Cloud), but it was nice to win because Denver was four points up on us heading into the weekend.”
The two teams play again Saturday night at 7 p.m.