BOSTON — Hear that?
It’s the University of Denver exhaling. It’s the University of Denver laughing easier. And, come Friday night during the team’s WCHA opener against St. Cloud State, it’ll be a whole slew of much happier Pioneer fans cheering during the team’s national championship banner-raising ceremony.
Happier, in no small part, due to a 4-2 victory over host Northeastern Saturday night — the 11th-ranked team’s first of the season.
“I don’t think anybody was looking forward to going into our conference play at oh-and-three,” 11th-year coach George Gwozdecky said of his team that fell to No. 7 Minnesota and No. 2 Boston College in its first two games. “Tonight’s game was a very important game for us. We needed (to win) for a lot of reasons. Maybe more important than anything else, we needed it for our confidence — for this team’s psyche and this team’s confidence.
“This team is a work in progress, and I thought some of our players had their best games of the season so far,” he said. “Matt Laatsch was terrific. Kevin Ulanski played a real strong game. Brett Skinner was strong. There are a number of guys who I was pleased with and gave a very strong effort, made good decisions and as a result we were able to have some success. I thought that game was, at this early juncture in the season, as important as they get.”
On the other side, Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder looked like a guy whose team was shorthanded 14 times. A little frazzled. A little tired. A lot disappointed.
“I don’t think we played very well,” he said of the 1-2 Huskies. “I thought we beat ourselves. I thought we had some guys that were nowhere near their capability. It’s a game that we had every opportunity to win, but we beat ourselves in a lot of ways. Not to take anything away from Denver, but throwing pucks up the middle and not getting pucks out, those are just mental toughness type things that can’t be tolerated.
“We can’t beat ourselves,” he added. “We’re an eight-cylinder car; we need all eight cylinders going.”
The winning goal was an eloquent example of Crowder’s frustrations. Officially, Ulanski’s second-period tally will go down as unassisted. He had help, though. NU senior captain Jason Guerriero, in a failed clearing attempt, hit Ulanski with a perfect tape-to-tape feed and the Madison, Wis., native walked in and snapped a wrist shot past Husky goalie Keni Gibson (33 saves).
Northeastern was also gracious with power play opportunities, giving the Pioneers 14 of the 19 opportunities in a tightly-called game. Each of Denver’s other three goals came with the man advantage.
“We took some penalties that, to me, were just laziness,” Crowder said. “We just didn’t have our feet moving for a lot of the time tonight. We played like we were the ones that played last night, and they didn’t. It should’ve been the other way around.”
With Denver’s power play previously connecting at a 2-for-20 clip, Laatsch saw definitive differences in the way the Pioneers worked as a unit Saturday.
“That was big for those guys on the power play tonight,” he said. “They moved the puck around well, got the puck into the zone a lot more successfully tonight and won the puck battles that you’re supposed to win when you’re a man up.”
Denver held a 1-0 edge at first intermission on a Geoff Paukovich power play strike with just 1:40 left in the opening frame. Senior Luke Fulghum fired a shot from the left post and, with Gibson down, the freshman knocked the puck into the vacant net for his first career goal.
NU tied the score on a power play 2:48 into the second period, as junior Mike Morris fired the rebound of a Guerriero shot past Denver netminder Glenn Fisher (29 saves) for his second goal of the year.
In fact, the juicy rebound was about the only mistake Fisher made. The sophomore, along with freshman backstop Peter Mannino, has the unenviable task of following Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player and All-American goalie Adam Berkhoel in the Denver net.
“For the first three games of the season I’m really pleased,” Gwozdecky said. “Glenn Fisher played very strong tonight. Other than (Morris’ goal), I thought he was really good. I thought he was strong. I thought he concentrated well. He had another good game, he played very well against Minnesota last weekend and gave us a chance to get in the game.
“Mannino last night, although it was not the kind of start we wanted in front of him, I thought he again he really did a nice job in that second period and allowed us to get back in the game. So far, I like what I see out of our young guys.”
After Morris’s strike, the teams traded power play tallies before Ulanski’s winner with four minutes left in the second period. Jon Foster gave DU a 2-1 edge after burying a 2-on-1 pass from junior Gabe Gauthier, while sophomore Bryan Esner notched his first career goal after taking a power play pass from NU defenseman Brian Deeth in front of the net with exactly seven minutes left in the period.
In the third period, Pioneer sophomore defenseman Matt Carle gave Gwozdecky’s bunch a two-goal cushion by slicing a wrist shot from the left slot over Gibson’s right shoulder.
Denver returns home Friday for its home and conference opener against St. Cloud State starting at 7:35 p.m. The teams will play again in Denver Saturday, this time at 7:05.
Northeastern hosts Rensselaer Tuesday before traveling to Colgate Saturday. Both contests start at 7 p.m.