ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Entering a weekend series with sixth-ranked St. Cloud State, there was little doubt that the Denver Pioneers were looking for a push to get them back into the WCHA race.
Fortunately for them, they brought a slingshot along.
Connor James scored early in the third, and the Pioneers held on the rest of the way to eke out a 3-2 win before 6,157 fans at the National Hockey Center over the league-leading Huskies to catapult themselves back into the WCHA’s elusive top five.
And, probably more importantly, they restored some of the much-needed confidence that Wisconsin stripped away a week ago.
“We didn’t show up last weekend,” said James, who beat his man to the far side of the net before burying a perfect centering pass from Jeff Drummond to give DU its only lead of the night.
“So to come in here, on the road, and play the top team in the league and get two wins kinds of puts us back on track and lets everyone know that we are a good team.”
That they proved in their own end of the ice. DU held the Huskies to just 20 shots — St. Cloud’s second-lowest output of the year — and got in the way of 22 others, as Adam Berkhoel only needed to make 18 saves in picking up his 10th win.
“Without a doubt this was our best defensive effort of the year,” said Pioneer head coach George Gwozdecky, whose team earned its first sweep in St. Cloud since late February of 1999. “Against a team like St. Cloud, to come in here and have this type of success does a world of good for our psyche and our confidence.”
They played with that confidence all night, even after falling behind early on a bad-angle goal from St. Cloud State fourth-liner Garrett Larson.
Larson held the puck behind Berkhoel and the DU goal. He sent it towards the netminder and it bounced off Berkhoel’s back leg and trickled down the goal line before eventually being swept in by the goaltender’s own stick.
That goal came just 4:29 into the game, and could have ignited a Husky offense that has been missing for nearly a month now, but the DU defense held serve the rest of the period and offense arrived midway through the second.
After a scrum in front of SCSU goaltender Tim Boron, a puck that seemed to be covered somehow squirted out to Ryan Caldwell at the right point. Caldwell one-timed it over Boron, popping his water ball into the air and knotting the game up at one.
Joe Jensen broke the deadlock though just 38 seconds later, when he beat Berkhoel stick side on a shorthanded breakaway, giving the Huskies the lead back at 2-1. But Brett Skinner scored a power-play goal for the Pioneers at the 15:53 mark to even the game up again, tucking Jon Foster’s rebound just under the crossbar.
The teams went to the dressing room tied, setting up James’ early third period heroics and igniting a fire in a Pioneer team that has already seen its share of peaks and valleys in this college hockey season.
“You hate to start thinking that this is a must-win or a must series,” said Gwozdecky. “To have to think that you have to go on the road and face the number-one team in the league and have to sweep them just to stay alive, that’s not a very good feeling, but now in the back of our minds, it’s there and it’s a very important defining moment of our season.”
The Pioneers haven’t lost on the road since the last day of October, and if they are going to ride this for a while, they’ll have to stay hot away from Magness Arena at least one more weekend. They return to Minnesota next weekend to play Minnesota State in Mankato.
“Anytime you can pick up a sweep on the road in the league is a good weekend,” said Skinner. “Now we’ve just got to keep it up.”