DENVER — Connor James had two goals and Brett Skinner added a goal and two assists as the Denver Pioneers (20-10-5, 10-10-5) broke open a tight game in the third period and beat the Minnesota Golden Gophers 6-2 Friday night. With the home victory, the Pioneers pulled within two points of the fifth-place Gophers and kept alive their hopes to host a first round WCHA series. Minnesota dropped to (20-12-3, 13-11-1).
Trailing 4-1 after two periods, the Gophers’ Thomas Vanek scored a power-play goal at 3:11 of the third period to make it a two-goal game. Minnesota kept pressure on Denver throughout the period but goals by James at 12:28 and Skinner at 13:10 broke open the game and gave the Pioneers their fourth win in their last five WCHA home games after starting the season 0-6-1 at home in league play.
According to Denver coach George Gwozdecky, the Pioneers’ strong third period play started after the Minnesota State Mankato game February 14th. Although the Pioneers gave up a 6-2 third period lead in that game, they scored the game winner with under a minute to play.
“Tonight our third period was typical of what we’ve been doing since that Mankato game,” Gwozdecky said.
Minnesota got on the board early in the first after Denver turned the puck over in the Minnesota zone. In the ensuing rush, Keith Ballard’s drop pass just inside the blueline set up Jon Waibel. Denver goalie Adam Berkhoel made the initial save but couldn’t control the rebound, which stayed in the crease. Andy Sertich whacked at it and then Jake Fleming came flying in jabbing the puck in for his sixth goal of the season at 2:55 of the first period.
Denver answered right away when Max Bull broke out of the Denver zone and shoveled one ahead to Jeff Drummond who had gotten behind the defense and beat Minnesota goalie Kellen Briggs for his 13th goal of the year at 3:23.
It was one of several Pioneer goals that were set up by long outlet passes.
“I thought our puck movement tonight especially in transition was real good and we caught them out of position a few times which gave us some pretty good scoring chances,” Gwozdecky said.
The Pioneers added to its first-period lead at 12:14 of the period. Following a Minnesota power play, the puck leaked out of a scrum inside the Denver blueline to Brett Skinner who fed Connor James streaking down the right side. James fired one just inside the left post from a wide angle. Despite being outshot 9-4, Denver took a 2-1 advantage into the locker room after the first period.
Denver came out flying at the start of the second and added to its lead right away. Brent Skinner threaded a long pass to Luke Fulghum who beat Briggs for his 10th goal of the season. That would be the last shot Briggs faced as he was pulled in favor of Justin Johnson after giving up three goals on six shots.
The move didn’t turn things around for the Gophers. Less than three minutes later, at 5:07, Gabe Gauthier netted his 14th of the season after Jeff Drummond hit Gauthier in stride as he came in from the neutral zone and slipped one past Johnson on the short side.
Minnesota had a number of missed a chances in the second period. One goal was waived off during a four-on-four, with the referee saying immediately it had been kicked in and Berkhoel made a spectacular diving save of a point-blank chance midway through the period. He finished with 26 saves.
Despite the chances after the Gauthier goal, Minnesota could not cut into the Pioneer lead until Vanek’s goal early in third. During a Minnesota power play, the Gophers’ Matt Koalska pushed one out from behind the net. Berkhoel stopped a lazy backhand from Troy Riddle and Vanek was in front to slap home the rebound for his 18th goal, but Minnesota could not pull closer than two.
Connor James helped close the door with his second goal of the game and tenth of the season after scooping up a puck that had been flipped into the neutral zone by Greg Keith and walking in alone on Johnson. Less than a minute later Brett Skinner made it 6-2 with his sixth of the year on a great individual effort, keeping the puck in the offensive zone along the boards and then flushing it out of the corner. Johnson came out after it and missed and Skinner dumped the puck in the wide-open net as he fell over Johnson.
The teams go at it again Saturday night with Denver having a chance to gain a tie with the fifth-place Gophers.