DENVER — On senior night, Denver’s senior captain finally struck gold.
Playing his final regular season home game, Ryan Caldwell’s power-play goal with 3:27 remaining lifted Denver to a 3-2, penalty-laden win over Colorado College. Denver’s win streak now stands at five and the Pioneers are unbeaten in their last nine.
Denver (23-10-5, 13-10-5 WCHA) had clinched a home playoff berth with a 3-1 win the previous night in Colorado Springs, but with Friday’s win the Pioneers reclaimed the Gold Pan — the trophy that goes to the season series winner between the intrastate rivals — for the first time since the 1998-99 season.
The Tigers (18-15-3, 11-15-2) won’t have to wait long for another shot at the Pioneers, however, as Denver’s win coupled with St. Cloud’s loss to Minnesota clinched fourth place for the Pioneers and a rematch with seventh-place Colorado College in the first round of the WCHA playoffs next week.
On a 5-on-3 power play late in the third, the 6-foot-3 defenseman Caldwell was getting battered in front of the Tiger crease when Gabe Gauthier centered the puck and Caldwell slipped a backhand underneath flattened Tiger goalie Matt Zaba for his 13th goal of the year.
“I think I spent three quarters of that shift on my butt or my back in front of the net, taking a beating down there,” Caldwell said. “I just turned around and hacked at it and luckily it went in.”
The night did not end on a positive note for another Denver senior. Assistant captain and second leading scorer Connor James suffered a fractured right fibula in the second period, and is out for next week’s playoff series against the Tigers.
Caldwell’s goal came at the end of a choppy third period in which play was rough before and after whistle. Of the 42 penalties in the game, half were called in the third period. At one point in the period there were nine players from both teams in the penalty box, as many as were on the ice.
“It was a gong show the last 30 minutes,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky. “I thought the penalty calls really started to frustrate both teams. At that point you started to see a lot of emotion and a lot of frustration that came out from both teams.”
Colorado College coach Scott Owens said, “I thought tonight got a little bit rough, but that’s just the rivalry that’s been going on for 40 years.”
The Tigers had clawed back from a 2-0 deficit early in the second period pulling even on two goals by Colin Stuart.
Down 2-1, Colorado College had killed off a Denver man advantage when Stuart scored the game-tying goal on a rocket from the left circle for his ninth of the year at 10:13 of the third.
Stuart’s first goal came midway through the second. Denver was cruising until James’ injury, but shortly after James was helped to the locker room, the Pioneers allowed the Tigers back in the game. After Denver failed to clear the puck, the Tigers’ Tyler Liebel scooped it up along the left boards and pegged Stuart striding at full speed from the neutral zone. Stuart’s laser beat Denver goalie Adam Berkhoel high to the glove side for his eighth of the year at 8:52 of the second, cutting the Pioneer lead to 2-1.
Denver was dominant in the first period, outshooting Colorado College 21-3. Senior Greg Keith opened the scoring on a five on three power play for his ninth of the season at 6:20 of the first. Keith took a feed from Jeff Drummond at the edge of the right circle and lasered one into the upper right corner.
After its strong first period, Denver kept the pressure on early in the second when Kevin Ulanski dribbled one ahead to freshman winger J.D. Corbin breaking out of the defensive zone. Corbin raced down the left boards past the Tiger defense, breaking in alone on Zaba, and slinging one inside the far post at 1:30 of the second for his third of the season, giving Denver a 2-0 lead.
Despite Denver’s huge advantage in shots on goal, Zaba kept the Tigers in the game early on and finished with 38 saves.
“He was sharp. He was on his game. He’s been giving us that kind of lift all season long,” said Owens.
Zaba’s effort was matched by Berkhoel. While facing fewer shots than Zaba, Berkhoel had some spectacular saves, including a cartwheeling stop on a drive by the Tigers’ Lee Sweatt early in the third. Berkhoel also had some help from the pipes, as Colorado College clanged three off the iron during the game. The senior netminder finished with 27 saves.
“Adam’s been playing out of his mind for a month now. He makes us look good so whenever we get a chance to clear a puck, or knock a guy down in front of the net, we want to do that for him,” said Caldwell
Looking ahead to next week’s rematch, Gwozdecky said, “It was intense tonight, and you can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like next weekend when these two teams get together, but that’s the fun of it.”