BOSTON — The message traveled from the crease to the bench: Adam Berkhoel was back on his game. Because of it, Denver was still in the game.
Minnesota-Duluth was one Berkhoel save away from putting away the Pioneers in the national semifinals on Thursday. Hobey Baker Award finalist Junior Lessard had an attempt at a hat trick on his stick in the last minute of the second period. A goal would have give the Bulldogs a 4-1 lead.
Instead, the Denver goaltender made the save. Then Denver rallied. Now the Pioneers are one victory away from their first national championship since 1969.
The Pioneers scored four times in the third period, with the winner coming off the stick of senior winger Lukas Dora with 11:35 remaining, and Denver defeated Minnesota-Duluth 5-3 in the Frozen Four at the FleetCenter.
Connor James and Ryan Caldwell started the rally with goals 34 seconds apart early in the period, and Greg Keith added an empty-net goal late to seal the victory — one that looked somewhat improbable when Lessard had Berkhoel down late in the second period.
A few minutes before that chance, Lessard had scored his second goal of the game after Berkhoel went down to cover the lower part of the net. The Bulldogs’ star winger just flipped the puck over him. The second time, it didn’t go as planned for Lessard.
Berkhoel went down again but got a piece of the shot to keep it out of the net.
“I was down on myself and didn’t know how I was going to react,” said Berkhoel, who looked shaky early as the Bulldogs went up 3-1. “He got a break late and I saw him going back up top. I just read it and made the save. That gave us momentum going into the third.”
It sure did. Denver (26-12-5) outshot the Bulldogs 13-6 in the final period to grab control, but it’s easy to think the Pioneers wouldn’t have had much left in the tank if they were down 4-1 going into the third.
The message came back to the rest of the team with that save.
“He made that save and we were making sure that everybody was reminded: Berkhoel’s back on his game,” Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky said. “He’s going to win this game for us as long as we give him some support. That was the message that we sent up and down the bench as soon as he made that save. … I think that might have been one of the turning points for us.”
UMD coach Scott Sandelin couldn’t disagree. Not that it was a bad shot by Lessard — maybe he didn’t lift it high enough — but there was surely no one the Bulldogs (28-15-4) would have rather had taking that shot than their 32-goal scorer.
“I think if Junior scores that goal at the end of the period, it’s a huge change,” Sandelin said.
There still could have been a huge change in the game. With 32.2 seconds remaining in the third period, UMD forward Tyler Brosz got his stick on an airborne centering pass and directed it on Berkhoel, who made the save. But Brosz — perhaps aided by being tripped up — slid into Berkhoel and pushed the puck in the net.
Referee Conrad Hache didn’t signal a goal and video review confirmed that the Bulldogs hadn’t tied the game because the puck was pushed in when Berkhoel was.
“We felt it was going to go our way, but it didn’t,” Sandelin said of the waiting game while the play was being reviewed. “That’s the way it goes.”
The Pioneers survived that scare and survived to play in their first championship game since 1973, thanks to a tidal wave of production in a six-minute stretch of the third. It was fueled by Denver’s advantage in speed, which paid off once it was used to its advantage.
That run gives the program a chance to redeem itself for its 1973 appearance, which was later vacated by the NCAA.
James scored at 2:30 of the third period to pull the Pioneers within one. He redirected a Brett Skinner shot off a faceoff past UMD goaltender Isaac Reichmuth (25 saves).
Caldwell, the captain and a defenseman, tied the game 34 seconds later on a breakaway, making up for a chance he had missed just moments earlier. Luke Fulghum, who had scored earlier to cut UMD’s lead to 2-1, fought off Bulldogs forward Evan Schwabe, who was the only UMD player back, to get the puck to Caldwell.
“I was on the bench with [assistant] coach [Seth] Appert and I told him I owed him one,” Caldwell said. “He said, ‘Go get it.’”
Then Dora put the Pioneers ahead for the first time. He followed a deflection off his skate at the right boards into open ice in the slot and slid a change-up through Reichmuth’s legs.
“Actually, I saw the opening and I tried to slide it between his legs,” Dora said. “I just don’t understand what the [defenseman] was doing. I saw one of our guys was open on the right side and the [defenseman] went with him so I went to the net. … I use that move all the time in practice.”
What the Pioneers didn’t practice was how to bail themselves out of an early hole.
Lessard scored 69 seconds into the game on the power play and later added a second power-play goal in the second period to counter Fulghum’s goal and give UMD a 3-1 lead. Lessard had 14 power-play goals for UMD, which boasts the nation’s second-best power play.
The Bulldogs finished 2-for-6, while Denver was 0-for-4 with the man advantage.
Brosz gave the Bulldogs a 2-0 lead 4:34 into the first period, firing a wrist shot past Berkhoel, off the left post and in after a faceoff win by T.J. Caig to the left of the net.
Bulldogs had a pair of two-goal leads but couldn’t hold either one. UMD was 25-0-1 entering the game when leading after two periods.
“We’ve got to give them credit. They never quit,” Lessard said of Denver. “Maybe we started looking too far ahead. … They came out really strong in the third period and that made a big difference.”
Said Schwabe: “We had two two-goal leads and we couldn’t manage to put it away.”
The Pioneers were just thanking their lucky stars they got out of a first period in which they were dominated and outshot 11-5.
“We were fortunate to be able to get out of it without too much damage,” Gwozdecky said.
The Pioneers also were fortunate to have Berkhoel stay in the game despite not having one of his better outings overall.
“I’m stunned,” said Berkhoel, who made 26 saves but faulted himself for UMD’s first two goals. “The way I started and the way the team responded is unbelievable.”
Well, believe it. The Pioneers — underdogs all the way — are going to play for the national championship.