DENVER — What a difference a day makes. Just 24 hours after pummeling the Michigan Tech Huskies 7-1 in Game 1 of their WCHA playoff series on Friday night, the Denver Pioneers had to rely on late-game heroics to eke out a victory.
Denver forward Adrian Veideman scored on a rebound with less than two minutes left as the Pioneers completed their sweep of the Huskies with a 1-0 win on Saturday. With the win, Denver has secured a spot at the Final Five next weekend in St. Paul, Minn.
“It was a hard fought series. They played great and so did we,” said DU center Gabe Gauthier, who assisted on the game’s lone goal. “We just tried to play our game and stay calm.”
Denver head coach George Gwozdecky was relieved not to have the series extended to a third game.
“Today was the last day of exams for the guys. I think that’s worn them down a bit,” Gwozdecky said of his team. “I’m really glad to have that extra day on Sunday to recover. We’ve got the McNaughton Trophy. Now we want the Broadmoor Trophy.”
The Pioneers prevailed despite a sensational effort from Tech’s senior goaltender, Cam Ellsworth (45 saves) and a stifling defensive effort on the part of the Huskies.
“[Ellsworth] has had a terrific second half of the season and I have a lot of confidence in him,” said Michigan Tech head coach Jamie Russell. “I’m proud of all of our guys’ effort. They played with desperation tonight.”
After a Game 1 that saw both teams getting the scoring going early, the opening frame of Saturday’s game was far more nondescript. The Pioneers looked a bit sluggish and unfocused in the early going despite outshooting the Huskies 14-5 in the period. Michigan Tech gave Denver a good deal of time in their zone but had a couple of decent chances in transition. The Huskies played well in killing an early DU power play, but Tech couldn’t convert on two chances of their own. Later in the period, the Huskies began to play a more close-checking physical game that denied the Pioneers many chances in close. Denver goaltender Peter Mannino (22 saves) and Ellsworth both maintained good positioning and had a few impressive stops that kept the game scoreless going into the second period.
“We knew we had to make adjustments from last night and I had to play better,” an emotional Ellsworth said after the game. “I felt like we were really playing better defensively.I was seeing the puck very well.”
The second period was another scoreless one for both teams, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Denver went on the man-advantage early and had some quality chances in close. Pioneer forward Paul Stastny had a great doorstep chance in front of Ellsworth, but couldn’t handle the cross-ice pass. The ensuing scramble for the loose puck produced another chance, but that was swallowed up by Ellsworth.
Michigan Tech then went on the offensive, launching shots from all angles and driving to the net for rebounds. Although they couldn’t muster a goal, the Huskies looked like a more desperate bunch and gained themselves an increasing amount of time in the Denver end at the midway point of the period. Tech star forward Colin Murphy fought for open spaces on the ice as Denver focused on stopping the Huskies’ top line. Husky defenseman John Scott was a literally huge physical presence on the ice. The 6-7, 255-pound junior pounded Pioneer forwards along the boards and in front of the net. The Pioneers also pushed the pace offensively but had trouble connecting on passes and seemed impatient as the second period wound down.
“They did a great job of controlling our power play,” said Gwozdecky of the Huskies. “Our timing was just off a little. Pucks were arriving too late or too fast. Those are the kinds of games where you can get frustrated.”
“Between periods coach told us it was going to be a dirty goal that was going win the game,” Mannino said. “That’s the playoffs. Things get chippy and you try to do everything you can to keep the puck out of your end.”
As time ticked away in the third period, it became apparent that the first goal would be the game winner. But before that could happen, the goaltender duel continued. Both squads had prime opportunities-and time after time, they were thwarted by fantastic goaltending at either end of the ice. Denver forward J.D. Corbin made a phenomenal move to stickhandle between defenders and drop a pass to wide-open linemate Geoff Paukovich, who was stymied by Ellsworth. Murphy had a great chance of his own putting a backhand shot on the Pioneer net that was blocked by the shoulder of Mannino.
“Peter didn’t have as much action [as Ellsworth].and he really had to concentrate,” Gwozdecky said. “It’s a tough mental strain on any goaltender.”
It wasn’t until 18:10 of the third period that the stalemate was broken. As a desperate scrum along the left wing boards ensued in the Michigan Tech end, the puck slid free of the melee and was corralled by Gauthier. Gauthier, who scored twice in Friday’s contest, charged for the net and got a shot off that Ellsworth saved. Before the Tech netminder could cover the rebound, a trailing Adrian Veideman slammed the puck past Ellsworth for the game winner. The goal was immediately reviewed on video for a few minutes before the final call was made.
“I was kind of relieved when it happened,” Gauthier said of Veideman’s goal. “We just wanted to get more shots on goal. Finally, we got something past [Ellsworth].”
Gwozdecky was highly impressed with the performance of Ellsworth.
“Ellsworth made another terrific save on Gabe [Gauthier] like he had been doing all night long,” Gwozdecky said. “Veideman just got a good shot at the puck and slammed it home.”
Denver seemed to do all it could to give Tech a chance to tie things, however. The Huskies were initially a man down when junior forward Brandon Schwartz was charged with roughing. Then, consecutive penalties on DU forwards Luke Fulghum and Jeff Drummond-combined with Ellsworth’s departure for an extra skater-forced Denver to kill off a 5-on-3 power play with just over a minute left. Mannino and the Pioneer penalty killers scrambled to block a volley of Husky shots until time had finally expired.
“You run a coverage and you’ve got to have the right guys on the ice,” commented Gwozdecky on the 5-on-3 defensive effort from his team. “It’s a sign of a good team to change your style and be successful.”
Russell said he felt his team played a great game despite the loss. “Obviously we would have liked some more offense, but we did get our chances,” Russell said.
For Ellsworth and the rest of the Tech seniors, the loss was a bitter one.
“It’s pretty hard right now,” Ellsworth said, ending his college career with a record of 27-72-10. “It’s not just a loss. It’s the end of the season, the end of our career. It’s just tough knowing we’re never going to be putting on the jersey again.”
For the Pioneers, the Final Five awaits as they continue to make another step in their bid for a national title repeat.
“We’re coming out with a bullseye on our chest,” Gauthier said. “It’s a great accomplishment for our team to be going on in the playoffs.”