DENVER — For the second night in a row, the MacNaughton Cup was awarded — this time to a different team.
Denver goalie Peter Mannino made 31 saves and seniors Jeff Drummond, Luke Fulghum and Kevin Ulanski each scored a goal to pace the Pioneers to a 5-0 rout over the Colorado College Tigers.
While Thursday night’s game — and a share of the WCHA regular season title — went to national No. 1 Colorado College (26-7-3, 19-7-2 WCHA), Denver (24-9-2, 19-7-2 WCHA) claimed its piece of the championship with the win. Along with a share of the title and the Gold Pan that the two Colorado teams battle for in the regular season, Denver clinched the top seed in the WCHA playoffs in a highly-anticipated matchup of bitter interstate rivals.
“We were really unhappy with our performance [Thursday], taking nothing away from CC because they were very good,” said DU head coach George Gwozdecky. “Tonight you could see in our preparation that we were much more determined.”
Fulghum, who scored his 20th goal of the season Friday, echoed the feelings of his coach.
“The pressure was on us on our rink to get the [WCHA] championship,” Fulghum said. “It was more important to get the win but to get to out-seed [Colorado College] was important, too.”
The Pioneers were hoping to avoid giving up the first goal as they did on Friday night, but Colorado College did a great job of backchecking and shutting down the neutral zone. Denver only got a step on the Tiger defense once in the early going, only to have that scoring break stifled by CC defenseman Richard Petiot.
Denver finally spread out the CC defense on a great shift by the line of Paul Stastny, Luke Fulghum and Ryan Dingle that led to the night’s first goal. The DU forwards stuck close to the boards and kept the puck away from CC defenders behind the net, forcing the Tigers to widen their defensive coverage. Dingle, who was stopped on a shorthanded chance earlier in the period, grabbed a rebound off a shot by Stastny and wrapped a backhand shot past Zaba to put the Pioneers up 1-0 at 11:18.
The goal seemed to give the Pioneers extra jump, something that Denver players felt they lacked over the past three weeks that saw them lose three games after a prolonged unbeaten streak.
“The last two weeks, ever since we tied Wisconsin, we got kind of complacent,” Denver freshman forward Geoff Paukovich said. “We needed to get back to playing our game.”
Both squads had power plays late in the period, but the goalies were up to the task. Zaba moved well in the crease to make stops on DU defenseman Matt Carle and Stastny, while Denver netminder Peter Mannino got a pad on a late shot to keep the Pioneers up by a goal.
“We battled physically and got a strong performance from Mannino in net,” said Gwozdecky. “This wasn’t a matter of us changing strategy. this was all about emotional intensity and preparation. That’s the way we’re capable of playing. Sometimes the coaching staff needs to keep this team’s feet to the fire.”
Denver’s seniors were recognized before Friday’s match, the final regular-season game of their college careers. But it was during the second period when the veterans truly took their turn in the spotlight. Just 1:28 into the period, DU winger Gabe Gauthier planted himself just outside the crease on Zaba’s left side, and slipped a pass to wide-open senior linemate Jeff Drummond. Drummond (15-17-32) was stopped on his first attempt, then lifted the puck past Zaba on his own rebound to put the Pioneers up 2-0.
“The seniors talked to us before the game,” said Paukovich. “They didn’t want to go out with anything less than a championship.”
Senior forward Jon Foster, who had an assist in the game, talked about the sense of urgency on the part of the Pioneer veterans.
“Everyone played great tonight. We wanted to win and get that cup.” said Foster.
The Pioneers picked up the pressure while Colorado College missed defensive assignments. However, Zaba helped slow DU’s momentum with a brilliant pad save on Carle, who had nothing but open net to shoot at. Nevertheless, Zaba couldn’t stop everything, and Denver put itself ahead by three on a goal by yet another senior contributor.
Stastny grabbed a loose puck and broke in with senior forward Fulghum as Tiger defenseman Mark Stuart tried to break up the 2-on-1. Stastny got free and left a pass for Fulghum, who wristed a laser into the CC net at 11:29 of the second period.
“It feels great any time you score a goal but when you score in your last game, it’s pretty special,” Fulghum said.
“We had some life in the last 10 minutes of the second period [but] I don’t think we worked very hard,” said Colorado College head coach Scott Owens. “They were the better team. They played desperate.”
Colorado College did have a few good chances as the period wore on, and was actually outshooting the Pioneers through the second. But a combination of timely saves and missed passes conspired to keep the Tigers off the board going into the third frame.
If the Tigers were to claim sole ownership of the MacNaughton Cup, they needed to have a strong start to the third period. Instead, the Pioneers struck a dagger into CC’s comeback chances with a goal in the first minute. On a tic-tac-toe passing play, Carle pushed a pass to Gabe Gauthier, who immediately sent the puck to a waiting Kevin Ulanski for a backhand shot that fooled a screened Zaba.
“We had a pretty good shift to start the third period, but they scored in the first minute,” Owens said. “That took us out of it.”
Later in the period, Denver struck again. This time, it was a freshman who contributed, as Paukovich tipped a Laatsch shot by Zaba for the game’s final tally. Mannino fended off the rest of the Tigers’ offensive outbursts to get his 13th win of the year.
“When you have a shutout your team has to play great in front of you,” said Mannino, who admitted that he and his fellow freshmen will look to DU’s upperclassmen for guidance as the Pioneers move into the playoffs.
“You still get the seniors riding you about stuff,” Mannino said. “There’s still a lot of things we [as freshmen] haven’t done.”
The Pioneers won the tiebreaker — goals against in the regular-season series — over CC by three goals, meaning Denver will face the 10th seed on home ice next Friday. Still, both coaches were reticent to say if a higher seeding would make much of a difference.
“It would be nice to be seeded number one if you can get to St. Paul and get [good] matchups,” said Owens. “I’m not sure if it’s an advantage.”
Gwozdecky said that although he wasn’t sure the top seed was any more beneficial than a two seed, but he was satisfied with a co-championship.
“This is the most difficult [league] championship to win in college hockey,” Gwozdecky said. “The only weekend nights you get off are the ones you’re not playing games. We’ve very proud of what this team has been able to accomplish.”