MINNEAPOLIS — Friday night at Mariucci Arena, Denver kept late-charging Minnesota from a complete reversal of fortune, but the teams settled for a 3-3 tie with home ice in the WCHA playoffs on the line.
After claiming an early 3-0 lead through two periods of play by exploiting Minnesota’s defensive miscues, the Pioneers watched as the Gophers steadily rallied to close the gap.
“We stole that point from them. In my three years here, playing Denver has always been tough, non-stop games. A real rivalry has grown. Who would think teams from Minnesota and Colorado would have such a heated rivalry?” said Grant Potulny, who scored two goals, including the game-tying marker.
Third-period goals by Potulny and Andy Sertich brought the hosts within one before an apparent game-tying goal — on a soccer-style play by forward Jerrid Reinholz with three minutes left — was waved off.
The Gophers continued to swarm the net and drew a critical man advantage with 2:31 left. Weber was pulled with just over a minute left for a 6-on-4, and head coach Don Lucia’s gamble paid off when his big guns came through.
Potulny tallied his second goal of the game by hitting the top shelf from the circle. Assists went to Matt Koalska and Thomas Vanek, and the game was tied. And that was how it ended.
“I kind of just camped out in front of the net until someone fed me the puck,” said Potulny.
Powered by special teams, the Pioneers broke out to a commanding lead. The Denver dominance started at 5:56 in the first period after two consecutive penalties by the Gophers, giving the Pioneers a brief two-man advantage. DU had numerous opportunities in the paint, but mustered only two shots while maintaining the zone.
After the teams exchanged odd-man rushes, both ending in stellar saves by the netminders, Minnesota started to take over play late in the first when the Gophers were awarded their first power play.
But at 15:44, Minnesota’s Paul Martin swung in deep up the right side to take a shot from the circle that was kicked aside by Denver goaltender Adam Berkhoel, creating a shorthanded rush for the Pioneers. Greg Keith slid the puck to an open Luke Fulghum, who zipped it past Minnesota netminder Travis Weber for the early lead.
That was one of several such opportunities for DU, which bedeviled Minnesota with odd-man chances all evening.
“I have not seen that many odd-man rushes all year. We were beat up and down the ice. We couldn’t beat our way out of a paper bag.” said Lucia.
Weber thwarted the next such rush with a minute left in the opening stanza.
“That’s why we practice 2-on-1 so much, I guess. You know you are going to see odd-man rushes. Hopefully, not as many as tonight,” said Weber.
Still, the Pioneers tallied a power play at 4:34 in the second to go up by two goals. Kevin Ulanski slid the puck a foot in front of the goal to the stick of Kevin Doell, cheating in from behind the net. Doell slid the puck home low on the far side.
At 7:09 Denver’s Jeff Drummond put his team a man down with a hold. But as often has been the case this season, the Gopher power play struggled at home.
Drummond escaped the box to find himself the trailer on a 3-on-1 rush. He followed his teammates up the ice to tap in the rebound for a 3-0 Pioneer lead. Assists went to Kevin Doell and Max Bull.
“I was so disappointed how we played in the first two periods. We did not have legs. We played with no emotion,” said Lucia.
The period ended with five penalties as Minnesota showed its frustration by collecting the extra minor after the whistle. But strangely, aside from the DU breaks, Minnesota played even with Denver. The shots read 19-19; the scoreboard 3-0.
Minnesota used a little transition game of its own to jumpstart a dormant offense at 7:36 in the third. Gino Guyer threw the bomb to an awaiting Tyler Hirsch at the blue line. Hirsch was joined by Potulny on the 2-on-1, and fed the puck to the Gopher captain, who one-timed it into the near corner.
The rally continued on a goal by Minnesota freshman Sertich. Barry Tallackson, with a defender all over him, set up the play on a wraparound feed. Sertich reached around his defender to swipe the puck into the net.
“I did not see it go in. I saw a delayed reaction from the ref before he pointed at the net,” said Sertich.
Momentum had a new team, and the game new life at 3-2.
“If we get behind we turn it on,” said Sertich.
After Potulny’s tying goal, shots ended 36-22 after three periods of play, including 17-3 in favor of Minnesota in the third. Neither team took many chances in overtime, and the only shot on net was by Denver with 14 seconds left.
Another scrum broke out as the horn rang to end the tale of two games.
“Denver was the better team tonight. We had nothing tonight, until we got the first goal. We were fortunate. Once we got into overtime, I just did not want to lose the point,” added Lucia.
On the Pioneer side, there was still disappointment. “These were two big points that we needed,” said Berkhoel.
The saga continues Saturday at 7:05 p.m. at Mariucci Arena.