DENVER — It’s almost as if the two teams traded uniforms and replayed their Friday night matchup.
The Denver Pioneers (12-2-0, 9-1-0 WCHA) earned a weekend series split with the Minnesota Gophers (12-2-3, 6-2-2 WCHA) with a 4-3 win that was just the opposite of the 2-1 game they lost Friday night.
In each game, the eventual winner jumped out to a first period lead and hung on for their lives as the eventual loser battled hard right down to the wire.
“I thought the growth in this series was very important for us,” Denver head coach George Gwozdecky said. “Obviously, we got a win out of it tonight, but more importantly I think we learned a lot about ourselves.”
With Denver leading 3-2 heading into the third period, center Chris Paradise scored the eventual game-winner by putting a rebound past Minnesota goaltender Adam Hauser. Only 1:24 into the final period, wing Kevin Ulanski put the original shot on goal from below the right side of the net, but the puck shot through Hauser, and Paradise was able to net it for the 4-2 Pioneer lead.
“I thought tonight we seemed to have a lot more fun in our approach to the game tonight,” Gwozdecky said. “There seemed to be an awful lot of momentum swings in this game and this series.”
In one of those shifts, the Gophers fought back immediately, as they had all night long, scoring a shorthanded goal little more than a minute later when wing Troy Riddle led a odd-man rush and beat Denver goaltender Adam Berkhoel cleanly.
But it wasn’t enough, as the Pioneers shut Minnesota down for the rest of the period.
“They’re a good hockey team, and it would be difficult for anyone to come in here and win two games,” Gopher head coach Don Lucia said. ” I was pleased with the way we came back the last two periods and played hard. You can’t dig yourself two-goal deficits on the road, though, and expect to come back and win.”
Denver came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, unlike its slow start in Friday night’s game. Minnesota almost matched the Pioneers in intensity to provide a thrilling first period of non-stop action. For almost seven minutes, the two teams played fast-break hockey, going back and forth on the ice without generating any real scoring chances. However, Denver was able to break through first on a great play by center Max Bull.
Wing Luke Fulghum put a shot on Hauser from the right flat that deflected right to Bull in the short left zone. Bull seemed to react slowly to the chance, but he was still fast enough to beat Hauser and give the Pioneers their first lead of the series.
Minnesota answered less than two minutes later when on a 2-on-1 break, center Matt Koalska kept the puck, skated into the crease from the left and zipped the disc over Berkhoel’s shoulders.
Keeping form with the ever-changing momentum shifts, the Pioneers answered the challenge themselves. Center Kevin Doell was able to deflect defenseman Jesse Cook’s shot from the right zone past Hauser to give Denver a 2-1 lead that held up to the end of the period.
“The first goal is always important, especially for our team,” Doell said. “Once we get that first one, our guys get a little more jump. Coming into the locker room after the first period with a lead is pretty key for our team.”
Denver was able to maintain the one-goal advantage through the second period, and briefly went up 3-1 on defenseman Aaron MacKenzie’s power-play slapshot from the top left of the zone. Hauser made the initial block on the puck, but he couldn’t gain possession of it, and the puck trickled past him for the goal.
It was the first special-teams goal of the weekend for either team.
“Two good teams played, and the team with maybe a little more sense of urgency is going to have a little better play,” Lucia said. “They were outhitting us and outskating us.”
Indeed, Minnesota clawed back to 3-2 midway through the period by putting a barrage of shots on Berkhoel. At one point in the sequence, Berkhoel made four straight saves, but he couldn’t cover the puck. Gopher wing Grant Potulny was finally able to beat Berkhoel off the fourth rebound to cut the Pioneer lead to one goal again.
“In the first period, it was slow,” Berkhoel said. “It was hard to get a feel for the game. I could have minimized everything by just controlling and making that save, but it just kept going and going. The puck was bouncing around — that’s just the way the night was going.”
Denver travels to take on MSU-Mankato next weekend, while Minnesota is off for three weeks before facing Ferris State in the Mariucci Classic in Minneapolis on December 28.