ST. PAUL, Minn. — Their rivalry is one of the best in college hockey right now because both teams are having tremendous seasons. Colorado College and Denver, located about 70 miles apart on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, shared the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA regular-season champions.
Now, they’ll get another game to decide who’s best. Colorado College overcame a pro-Minnesota crowd of 17,794 at the Xcel Energy Center to down the Gophers 3-0 Friday in a WCHA Final Five semifinal and advance to the championship game for a rematch with the Pioneers.
And they won’t be able to split this title.
The Tigers, in search of their first Broadmoor Trophy, got two goals and an assist by Hobey Baker Award finalist Brett Sterling for their third straight win over Minnesota in the Twin Cities.
“If we had to pick any team, I think Denver would be one of those teams that you want to play,” Colorado College goaltender Curtis McElhinney said. “I know they’ve got a great team this year, they’ve had a lot of success so far. We’ve both come away with two games [in the season series], so we’re both looking forward to it and this’ll be a good chance to decide the championship.”
And get the bragging rights. McElhinney made 34 saves to become the first goaltender to blank Minnesota since the first game of the 2003-04 season and got some help from a disallowed goal to help his team all but wrap up a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.
McElhinney, the WCHA’s first-team goaltender and a likely All-American, improved to 19-2-1 this season by frustrating the Gophers all night.
The second-seeded Tigers (29-7-3) were outshot 32-22, including 14-5 in the third period when the Gophers (26-13-1) mounted a rally. But third-seeded Minnesota’s fate may have been decided early in the game when a decision unexpectedly went in CC’s favor.
The Gophers appeared to take a 1-0 lead early in the second period when Mike Howe fired a wrist shot high past McElhinney. But the video review given to all goals revealed that Minnesota’s Danny Irmen had part of his skate blade in the crease when the puck went in the net and the goal was disallowed.
Just 14 seconds later, Sterling scored his first goal of the night, beating Minnesota goaltender Justin Johnson high to the short side on a rush up the right wing.
“When we found out that goal was disallowed, it gave our team a lot of energy,” Sterling said. “The crowd got really pumped up at first and it kind of took a little wind out of their sails, knowing the goal was disallowed. We just wanted to go from there and establish ourselves.”
Just as it propped up one team, it deflated the other.
“It was just a complete change in momentum there,” Minnesota forward Gino Guyer said. “We were feeling good on the bench and when it’s disallowed you sag a little bit and they come down and score. I could definitely tell we sagged a little bit after that time.”
Sterling assisted on Aaron Slattengren’s 11th goal of the season just under five minutes later for a 2-0 lead, intercepting a blind backhand pass by Minnesota defenseman Chris Harrington and firing a shot on Johnson, who made the save. But Slattengren slid the rebound under the goaltender for a power-play goal.
Sterling scored his second goal of the game and 32nd of the season on an odd play just under five minutes into the third period. He rifled a wrist shot off the crossbar, and while the goal judge incorrectly turned on the red light, Sterling collected the rebound and banked it in off Johnson’s leg.
“He’s obviously a top player in the league,” Johnson said, “and he showed it tonight.”
Minnesota had its chances, especially early before the Tigers cracked down on defense. Jerrid Reinholz hit the crossbar early in the game and Tyler Hirsch missed an open net with a one-time slap shot off a McElhinney turnover in the second period.
The Gophers had five cracks at the power play and often got the puck near the crease but couldn’t get the bounces to go their way.
“I think the difference tonight was their all-league players played like all-league players,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said.
The Tigers swept the Gophers at Mariucci Arena in January and have won three straight against Minnesota since losing 7-2 in Colorado Springs on Dec. 4.
Now they get to turn their attention back to their close rival, with whom they’ll share a charter flight back to Colorado after Saturday’s game. The Tigers and Pioneers split the season series 2-2 and split their games on the final weekend of the regular season, giving each half a share of the MacNaughton Cup.
“I’m excited for the game,” Sterling said. “This year has been a great battle between us and Denver all year long, getting co-champions. It all comes down to one game for the Broadmoor Trophy, so it doesn’t get much better. The flight might be a little bit more interesting than it was on the way out, but it’s no big deal. At least they’ve got two separate sides of the plane.”