DENVER — Denver defenseman Matt Laatsch had been struggling in the first two periods, but during the second intermission he promised his coaches he would do better. He kept his word.
Laatsch’s goal at 14:32 of the third period halted a Minnesota rally as the Denver Pioneers won 6-3 at Magness Arena in Denver. The win pulled the Pioneers into a tie with the Golden Gophers for fifth place in the WCHA and gave them inside track for a home playoff berth because they own the tiebreaker with the Gophers.
In a tight 4-3 game late in the third, Laatsch made it a two-goal game when he picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone and scored on a blast from outside the circle at 14:32 of the third period. The unassisted goal was his fourth of the season.
“He came up to us at the second intermission. ‘I promise you I will play better in this third period. Have faith in me.’ He knew he was struggling, we didn’t have to tell him that,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky. “The icing on the cake is that he gets a real big goal to get us that cushion that we needed.”
Laatsch’s score was key because Minnesota (20-13-3, 13-12-1 WCHA) had closed to within one on a goal that had initially been disallowed. Trailing 4-2 early in the third, Minnesota’s Tyler Hirsch fired a shot from the blue line and the puck banked between Denver goalie Adam Berkhoel’s pads getting behind him but not in the net. As he reached behind to cover it, Minnesota’s Jerrid Reinholz dove at it and, although it appeared to slide across the line, the referee waved it off. After a conference of the officials the call was reversed and the goal was allowed, giving Reinholz his third of the year.
The win put Denver (21-10-5, 11-10-5) in position to host a home playoff series going into its final two-game series with seventh place Colorado College.
“There’s such a fine line in this league between winning and losing,” Gwozdecky said. “It’s so darn competitive that any edge you can get is necessary and one of the edges you can get is home ice in the playoffs.”
While disappointed with the losses, Minnesota head coach Don Lucia pointed out that his team still controls its playoff seeding as it plays next weekend at fourth place St. Cloud, which failed to add to its one point lead over the Gophers after getting swept by Colorado College.
“Well it hurts, but we play St. Cloud and we have a chance to move ahead of them next weekend,” said Lucia. “The reality is that fourth and fifth really doesn’t matter. The bottom line is CC, Denver, St. Cloud and Minnesota are playing each other it’s a matter of where and who is playing who.”
Denver extended its unbeaten streak to seven games including a 5-0-1 mark in February. The Pioneers seemed to continue the momentum from Friday night’s 6-2 victory scoring twice in the early going. Luke Fulghum netted his 17th of the season at 1:37 of the first. Lukas Dora got the assist pulling up just past the blue line, spinning and hitting a driving Fulghum who fired one low to the stick side past Minnesota goalie Kellen Briggs.
The Pioneers second goal came at 7:35 of the first. After killing off a power play, Greg Keith pounded home a rebound of a Connor James shot for his eighth goal of the year at 7:35 of the first. After the Keith goal the Gophers substituted Justin Johnson for Kellen Briggs for the second night in a row. Briggs faced four shots, giving up two goals.
Lucia pointed to goaltending as a key to the weekend’s losses.
“Goaltending was an issue all weekend and that was the biggest difference in the weekend,” Lucia said. “It’s been pretty good all season long, but it just exploded on us this weekend.”
Johnson finished with 20 saves on 24 shots.
Minnesota cut the 2-0 lead in half late in the first. With Denver’s Ryan Caldwell in the box for obstruction, Barry Tallackson knocked in a rebound off a Chris Harrington shot for his eighth goal of the season. Andy Sertich also picked up an assist.
Denver built a three-goal lead with two early goals in the second. Lukas Dora pounced on a rebound scoring his 12th of the season after Luke Fulghum picked up a turnover in the Minnesota zone to give the Pioneers a 3-1 lead at 3:55.
Denver pushed its lead to 4-1 with a power play goal at 5:19 by Matt Carle who scored from the left point on a long shot that skittered through traffic. It was Carle’s fifth of the season with assists going to Caldwell and Gabe Gauthier.
The Gophers responded right away. A two-on-one developed in the neutral zone and Matt Koalska kept it himself and beat Adam Berkhoel five-hole for his tenth goal of the season with Thomas Vanek getting the assist.
The Pioneers won for the second night in a row while being outshot. Tonight, Minnesota had a 37-28 advantage, and Lucia was not disappointed with his team’s effort.
“We generated 37 shots,” said Lucia. “We generated our chances and worked and the bottom line is that when you work you give yourself a chance to win.”
Denver was able to win despite being outshot due to more solid play from Berkhoel, who finished with 34 saves.
“Don’t downplay the importance of Adam Berkhoel. The power play or a penalty kill is only as good as the goaltending and when Adam is giving us the goaltending he’s giving, it sure makes everybody look a lot better.” said Gwozdecky.
Connor James added an insurance goal at 18:37 to make the final tally 6-3. Minnesota goalie Justin Johnson was on his way to the bench for an extra skater when Denver gained possession. James feathered a shot high in the air over a backpedaling Johnson who was still 15 feet from the crease. The puck found the net for James’ 11th of the year.