MANKATO, Minn. — Giving away a 7-1 lead was a gift not even Santa Claus could match.
Yet Denver (11-6-3, 5-6-3 WCHA) did just that as Minnesota State won 8-7 despite a six-goal deficit and a third-string goalie in net.
MSU (4-9-3, 3-7-2 WCHA) allowed six goals in the first and was trailing by six halfway through the second, but Shane Joseph and Chris Clark led the charge as the Mavericks made possibly the biggest comeback in the team’s history.
Joseph notched a hat trick, including the game winner, and added an assist, and freshman goalie Chris Clark stopped all 13 shots he faced in his college debut.
“I know it has to be close to one of the biggest comebacks we’ve ever had,” MSU coach Troy Jutting said. “And one thing about it, it was against a very good hockey team. It wasn’t against just any team. It was against the fifth-ranked team in the country.”
“We came in after the first and everyone was down,” Joseph, MSU’s captain, said. “What can you say to the guys? I just told them all, ‘Boys, let’s forget about it. Scoring goals is fun. Now all we have to do is go out and score.’”
Down 7-1, the Mavericks got a goal by freshman Lucas Fransen that, at the time, seemed like just a blemish against a Pioneer team headed to its sixth league win of the season.
But after DU’s Matt Laatsch was given a game misconduct and a major penalty for checking from behind, the Mavericks got new life.
Travis Morin scored one goal and Joseph tallied his first two goals in a span of 39 seconds to make the score 7-5 heading into the third period.
“It was a feeling there somewhere fairly early in the second period where I just felt that if we didn’t come all the way back, we were gonna play hard and play well the rest of the game,” Jutting said.
The three power-play goals came after MSU had tallied only once with the man advantage in its previous 57 attempts.
“We haven’t scored in eons, and I think we got three in under a minute,” Jutting said. “The good Lord was looking down on us.”
DU assistant coach Seth Appert said the call was “questionable,” but Joseph said it was the turning point in the game.
In the third, Joseph started another goal as the Mavericks climbed to within one. On the penalty kill, the senior intercepted a Pioneer pass in MSU’s zone and led a two-on-two with Fransen. Joseph handed the puck to Fransen, who found Adam Gerlach trailing on the play. Gerlach put the puck past DU goalie Adam Berkhoel at 8:25 of the third.
Brad Thompson scored the game-tying goal at 14:49 as he wristed the puck past Berkhoel from the slot.
Then, with 4:09 left in the game, Joseph and David Backes went down the ice on a two-on-two rush. With Backes screening Berkhoel, Joseph sent a shot that beat the Denver goalie for his third goal of the game and eighth of the year.
“I cut to the middle, and the D man slipped a bit,” Joseph said. “I saw the lane and just fired, and it went in.”
“He played like an all-American,” Jutting said of Joseph.
Clark, who replaced starter Jon Volp and backup Kyle Nixon after they allowed four and three goals respectively, held the Pioneers from scoring late, and the Mavericks picked up the 8-7 league win.
Denver took advantage of three power-play goals in the first to go up 6-1 after 20 minutes of play. Sophomore Gabe Gauthier paced the Pioneers with two goals and two assists in the first stanza.
“We played very well in the first half of the game and took a commanding lead, which should be good enough to win,” Appert said.
Volp was removed after allowing four goals on eight shots. Nixon took over at the end of the first and was replaced by Clark in the second after giving up three goals on seven shots.
After Clark, a native of San Mateo, Calif., made his first collegiate save, the 3,650 fans gave a sarcastic cheer to the goalie they would soon be praising.
Clark made five saves in the second and got a break when Jeff Drummond was denied his third goal of the game by the crossbar. From there on, Clark settled down and looked right at home in net for the Mavericks as Joseph led the unbelievable comeback.
“Definitely a dream come true,” Clark said. “I didn’t even think I was going to play. It’s not the way I dreamed about it, but I’ll take it.”
“With Chris, I think it’s a case where his attitude has stayed awesome. Sometimes when you haven’t played and it really doesn’t look like you’re going to play, it’s easy to get down, and it’s easy to not be ready when you get a chance. The kids love him because of his attitude, and he works hard every day,” Jutting said.
“It was a wild game, and obviously it was a tough one to swallow,” Appert said. “We showed some of our inexperience and lack of confidence in ourselves when we struggled down the stretch.”
Appert noted the fact that two regular Pioneer defensemen were injured the night before. After Laatsch was kicked out of the game, the team was left with just two defensemen.
“But that’s not why we lost,” Appert said. “Give credit to Mankato. They came out and played very hard and competed and didn’t give up.”
“I think it shows a lot of heart on our team,” Clark said. “Everybody takes us as a team that they’re going to beat every night, and we’re not like that. We know we can win every night. Hopefully if we show up we can get the points, and luckily tonight we did.”
Denver returns home to play in the Denver Cup next weekend. The Mavericks will take to the road to play in the Sheraton/Bank North Classic in Vermont.