DENVER — What started as a rout ended in a wild finish, as the Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-2-0, 6-1-0 WCHA) won their sixth straight game in Denver Friday night by a final score of 5-4. The Pioneers (5-5-0, 4-3-0 WCHA) dropped their first game at home this season despite overcoming deficits of 3-0 and 4-2 in the third period.
The Denver faithful, who had had little to cheer in the first two periods, reached a fever pitch when senior Luke Fulghum tied the game at 4 with less than three minutes left in regulation. Denver’s J.D. Corbin gave a perfect pass from behind the net, and hit Fulghum with enough time to roof the puck over Minnesota netminder Kellen Briggs’ shoulder.
The game seemed destined for overtime with both teams fatigued, but — continuing a trend of unpredictable plays — Minnesota’s Ryan Potulny got hold of a loose puck in front of DU goaltender Peter Mannino and flipped the puck into the top shelf for his second goal of the evening, this one the game winner.
“Tonight things didn’t go our way in the third,” said Potulny, who scored his 10th and 11th of the year to pace the Gophers. “Some of our young guys were getting uptight and nervous. But we’ve been finding a way to win in the third period [during the win streak] and we just have to emphasize playing our game.”
After Mannino was pulled for the extra skater, the Pioneers had a couple of chances, but came up short as the Gopher defense got the puck out of their zone to preserve the victory.
“We didn’t win any style points tonight,” Gopher head coach Don Lucia said. I gave our guys credit for the first two periods, but Denver really pounced on it in the third period and fed off their fans.”
Minnesota, leading 3-0 after two periods, appeared to have all the momentum going into the third, but Denver stemmed the tide early. Paul Stastny cut the lead with the Pioneers’ first power-play goal of the evening, at 3:36 on a slot-crossing one-timer from forward Luke Fulghum.
Less than a minute later, Denver struck again as Adrian Veideman cashed in on a nifty deke to the right of the net, getting the puck past Briggs on the forehand to make it 3-2.
“The game changed when they scored that power-play goal,” said Lucia, now 8-8-1 against DU during his tenure with the Gophers. “We were on our heels … you have to continue to play hard and force the issue, and we weren’t doing that.”
Just like that, it was a one-goal game, but Minnesota didn’t fold.
The Gophers put another goal between themselves and the Pioneers on Potulny’s rebound putback on the power play at 7:19, but the third period proved unpredictable once again. Denver defenseman Matt Carle (10 points on the season) scored less than two minutes later to get the Pioneers within one on a great power-play effort.
“Our first 40 minutes were very inactive, and in the last 20 minutes, we were very proactive,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky. “We had a lot more competitive fire [in the third].”
For the first two periods, it looked as if the third would be irrelevant. The Gophers, who entered the contest on a five-game win streak, had fresh legs in their first contest since November 6. Minnesota took the play to the Pioneers early in the first, controlling the puck in the DU zone.
Both teams traded power plays in the first 10 minutes of the contest, with Minnesota getting sticks in Pioneer passing lanes and keeping the puck far away from Briggs. In the second half of the opening frame, Denver began playing with confidence, getting a great chance from winger Jon Foster, who just missed potting the opening goal on a wrist shot from the left circle during a DU power play.
Instead, the Gophers struck moments later. Junior forward Andy Sertich beat Mannino at 14:33 with a nice backhand shot that capped off a 2-on-1 break with linemate Jerrid Reinholz.
Denver continued to struggle with the man advantage early on. Though Denver received another power play late in the first, the Pioneers had difficulty setting up and came up empty.
The second period began with both teams more cautious, but soon enough, the chances came for Minnesota. The Gophers’ quickness paid off when a great outlet pass from center Jake Fleming got to senior forward Garrett Smaagaard, who launched a laser from a few feet over the blueline that zipped past Mannino to give Minnesota the 2-0 lead.
“At that point, you’re just hoping you can get out of the period without being too far down,” said Gwozdecky. “I was rather surprised and disappointed by the way we played [in the first two periods].”
After Smaagaard’s goal, Denver began a barrage of shots, but Briggs was up to the task. The sophomore — and Colorado native — saw pucks well, especially on tipped shots near the crease. As the Pioneers picked up the pressure, Briggs got good lateral movement to make the stops, capping his run with two unbelievable stops on Veideman.
“I knew they were getting some good chances during the end of the second,” said Briggs, who made 34 saves on the night and improved his record to 8-1-0 on the season. “I was seeing the puck well. It’s nice when you can get good looks.”
Denver’s forwards had chances late in the second and outshot the Gophers 15-8, but bouncing pucks and fanned shots conspired to keep the Pioneers off the board.
Once the Gophers had survived the Denver assault, they took advantage of a 3-on-2 break that broke down, but turned into a fantastic play in the Pioneer zone. As Smaagaard brought the puck in, he pushed a pass to Fleming, skating to the Denver net. Fleming held up, and hit streaking defenseman Judd Stevens in the slot for the 3-0 lead with less than a minute left in the period.
“[The Gophers] were strong on the puck and they took advantage of our miscues,” Gwozdecky said. “Briggs played very well … but it’s up to our team to respond in that situation.”
“We weren’t ready to play,” said Veideman. “We had to come out and try to take over the game.”
Veideman said that his team needed to have the focus it had in the last 20 minutes for all 60 on Saturday night. “It’s a tough loss, and such an up-and-down game,” Veideman said. “This could have been the biggest roller-coaster of emotions we’ve ever faced.”
Denver and Minnesota complete their series Saturday night at 7:05 in Denver.