MANKATO, Minn. — Forget the Grinch who stole Christmas. For Minnesota State, it was the goaltenders who stole two wins before Christmas.
After Denver goalkeeper Wade Dubielewicz stopped 34 of 35 shots Friday night, sophomore Adam Berkhoel turned away 32 of the 34 shots he faced in a 5-2 victory as the visiting Pioneers (14-2-0, 11-1-0 WCHA) swept Minnesota State-Mankato (8-9-1, 5-8-1 WCHA).
In 16 total games this year, Denver has allowed two goals or fewer 13 times. Coming into the game, Berkhoel and Dubielewicz led the WCHA in overall goals against average with 1.85 and 1.88, respectively.
“I think anytime you have a low goals against, the first thing you have to look at is your goaltending,” said DU head coach George Gwozdecky. “Obviously Wade and Adam have given us great goaltending throughout the season. They’re a big reason for (our success).”
MSU head coach Troy Jutting agreed, saying, “It starts with great goaltending. They have two kids that can really play. And their defense does a good job of keeping you to the outside.”
On top of Berkhoel’s performance and Denver’s defensive play, five different skaters scored for No. 3 Denver to post the victory.
The scoring started early for the Pioneers as they took advantage of a power-play chance. Defenseman Jesse Cook got the puck to teammate Luke Fulghum on the left side of the net. Fulghum wasted no time sending the puck across the crease to junior Matt Weber, who was all alone on the right side of the net. Weber put the puck into the empty right side of the goal as the Pioneers took the 1-0 lead at 4:02.
Denver went one for five on the power play Saturday and four for 12 on the weekend.
The Mavericks battled back hard and got the equalizer at 7:43 on their first power-play chance. Captain Andy Hedlund made a brilliant diving play to keep the puck in the Denver zone after a Pioneer skater attempted to clear. Hedlund, a senior, got to his feet and fired the puck on net. Sophomore Cole Bassett tipped the shot, and senior Josh Kern fired the rebound on goal, but Berkhoel stopped both shots. Finally, sophomore Shane Joseph came down the left side, found the puck, and put it past Berkhoel for his eighth goal of the season.
MSU poured on the pressure and led in shots halfway through the period. But Berkhoel and the Pioneer defense killed off another Mankato power play, and Denver pulled ahead for good at 13:52.
Minnesota State sophomore Dana Sorenson carried the puck in his defensive zone, but DU forward Connor James picked Sorenson’s pocket and took the puck in all alone on MSU goaltender Jason Jensen. James, a sophomore, faked Jensen to the ice, put the puck on his backhand, and beat the MSU goalkeeper low on the glove side to give Denver the 2-1 lead.
“I almost lost it there,” remarked James with a smile. “I stripped the guy and pushed it a little too far ahead. I guess I got a little too excited. I caught up to it and luckily it went in.”
The Pioneers took their lead into the second and continued swarming the Mavericks in the MSU zone. Their pressure paid off as they scored again 2:40 into the period.
Defenseman Erik Adams took a shot from the left side on the blue line. Jensen knocked the puck down but could not cover up the rebound. The puck slid out in the right circle to senior Chris Paradise. Paradise gathered the puck and buried it into the net for his fifth goal of the year.
Berkhoel came up big in the second as he turned away all nine shots he faced in the period. Early on, Berkhoel took a wrist shot from defenseman Peter Runkel off his facemask. Halfway through the stanza, the sophomore goaltender stopped Joseph on a shorthanded slapshot in the slot. His best save came off a three-on-one rush as MSU senior Nate Mauer dropped the puck back to Bassett. Bassett’s wrist shot was stopped by Berkhoel, and he allowed no rebound.
Denver kept up the pressure and increased their lead to three goals with 3:45 left in the period. Kevin Doell tipped a shot by teammate Lukas Dora underneath Jensen to put the Pioneers up 4-1. With the ice slanted in MSU’s direction, the Pioneers took their commanding lead into the second intermission.
The Mavericks came out with a flare to start off the third period, generating good scoring chances and eventually pulling within two goals as sophomore Tim Jackman scored his team-leading eleventh goal of the year at 6:38. Jackman has now scored one goal in each of his last five games.
MSU peppered Berkhoel with 16 total shots in the third period, but the sophomore from Woodbury, Minn., stood strong in goal and kept all but Jackman’s goal from finding the net.
His best save in the final minutes came on a wrap around attempt by MSU. Joseph carried the puck behind the Denver goal and came around the right side. With a defenseman draped all over him, Joseph tried to lift the puck over Berkhoel. However, Berkhoel made a good shoulder save from his knees and allowed no second chance.
Greg Keith added an empty-net goal with 1:27 remaining in the period to cap Denver’s 5-2 win and the road sweep.
“It’s good to get the two wins here,” said Cook. “They’re a good team, and they’re the most physical team we’ve played this year, I think. They were two hard fought wins.”
Gwozdecky was pleased with his senior blueliners and his team’s shot blocking.
“We have three senior defensemen who have logged a ton of games over their career, and our commitment to defense (as a team) has been pretty darn good. And there’s no question that part of our game, part of supplying good defense, is being able to basically sacrifice your body to block a shot. When you’ve got guys willing to go down and do that, that’s a real powerful message to everybody on the team. That’s something that’s part of being successful, part of a strong defense. I’m really proud of our guys when they’re willing to do that.”
Jutting, although disappointed with the weekend sweep, thought his team played well but just ran into a better overall team. He was very impressed with their “no-quit” attitude.
“I give our kids credit. They didn’t quit. I think lesser kids could have packed it in there. They didn’t. They battled hard and unfortunately we had a bit of a hill to climb against a very good defensive team.
“They’re playing very well right now and they’re confident,” added Jutting of the Pioneers. “I just think we played a very good hockey team and we’re still in the process of getting there. At times you have to give credit to the other team. They’re working hard too. They’re not 11-1 in our league because they don’t play hard.”
Next weekend the Mavericks head to St. Cloud to take on the Huskies in WCHA conference play. Denver takes four points into the holiday break and will resume play in the Denver Cup, December 28 and 29.