ST. PAUL, Minn. — The first goal was nothing special, Gabe Gauthier said. The second goal?
“Very special,” Gauthier said.
That seems fitting, considering Gauthier’s second goal of a WCHA Final Five semifinal game Friday came in overtime. Gauthier scored 42 seconds into an extra session to send top-seeded Denver to Saturday’s championship game with a 2-1 victory over North Dakota in front of an announced crowd of 13,132 at the Xcel Energy Center.
The winner was the junior center’s 20th goal of the season, and it allowed the Pioneers to escape with a victory with what they considered a subpar effort.
“We didn’t play our best game tonight,” Gauthier said. “North Dakota came out ready to play; they tested us the whole night. To come out with the victory was a hard-fought effort by us.”
The result gave Denver coach George Gwozdecky his 400th career victory a day after he was named the WCHA’s Coach of the Year for a third time.
Gauthier and North Dakota defenseman Nick Fuher scored first-period power-play goals before the game got tight. Denver goaltender Glenn Fisher and UND’s Philippe Lamoureux traded big saves before Fisher came out the winner after the first shot of overtime.
Gauthier swung around North Dakota’s Rastislav Spirko to get to the center of the zone and fired a wrist shot into the top right corner of the net for his 10th career game-winning goal for the Pioneers (27-9-2).
North Dakota (21-14-5) missed an opportunity to become only the third team since the WCHA moved to the Final Five system in 1993 to advance to the championship game after winning the play-in game. Northern Michigan did it in 1993 and Michigan Tech matched that in 1996, but neither was able to win the title.
The fifth-seeded Sioux put forth an effort that belied the fact that they had won the play-in game just 16 1/2 hours before the start of Friday’s game. They also didn’t appear rattled by early second-period injuries that took forwards Brady Murray and Robbie Bina out for the rest of the game.
Murray appeared to injure a shoulder, while Bina was taken to a hospital after leaving the ice on a stretcher following a hit by Denver’s Geoff Paukovich, who was suspended for Saturday’s championship after the tape was reviewed by league officials following the game.
“I’d be lying to tell you there wasn’t a lot of emotion there, but the key is to try to channel your emotion and control what you can,” Sioux coach Dave Hakstol said. “Right at this point in the season, you need to win a hockey game. I think that’s where we tried to focus.”
Both teams had a tiebreaking goal waved off in regulation. Denver’s Gauthier directed a puck into the net with a stick above the level of the crossbar in the first period and had the score negated on a video replay.
North Dakota’s Travis Zajac thought he broke the 1-1 tie with 7:28 remaining in the third period on a quick turnaround shot after a deflection off a Denver player’s skate. The goal judge and referee Don Adam both signaled a score, but video replay showed that an off-balance Fisher stopped the puck just before it crossed the goal line.
“I think the puck came up into my pants so it disappeared off the ice when I lifted up, and that’s why he thought it went in,” Fisher said. “I couldn’t tell if it was [in] or not after the play happened.”
The intensity picked up in the final minutes of the third period, with Lamoureux called on to make three big saves. He stopped a Luke Fulghum shot from the right side and a quick rebound from the top of the crease with just over five minutes remaining.
Three minutes later, he made a save on a Jon Foster attempt that left a great rebound opportunity for the Pioneers’ Paul Stastny on the left side with Lamoureux down on the ice. But Stastny backed away in an attempt to find an angle to shoot, and his shot went wide right.
Add that to a stop on Denver’s Jeff Drummond on a late-first-period breakaway, and you’ve got another solid outing by a North Dakota goaltender. Jordan Parise had started the last seven games — which coincided with the Sioux’s seven-game unbeaten streak — but UND coach Dave Hakstol went with Lamoureux as part of a preplanned schedule, he said.
“I’m proud of Phil Lamoureux,” Hakstol said. “He gave us a big performance tonight. He gave us the opportunity to win.”
Denver had good reason to be proud of Fisher, who was 1-2 in his last three games before Saturday. He said it was his best effort of the season.
“To date, I think it was because of what was on the line,” Fisher said. “I thought I did my job right tonight.”
Each team scored on its first power-play chance of the game. Parked in front of the net, Gauthier put away a pass from Paul Stastny despite North Dakota defenseman Matt Jones getting a stick on Stastny’s crossing attempt.
Fuher evened things for the Sioux just past the halfway point of the first period with a hard wrist shot from between the circles that eluded the block attempt of Denver’s Adrian Veideman and found the top left corner of the net.
But Gauthier came through with the winner, giving the Pioneers a chance to win their second major championship of the season after claiming a share of the MacNaughton Cup.
“Gabe’s one of these guys, over the course of his career, he’s enjoyed this time of the year the best,” Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky said. “He loves the playoffs. It’s almost like he saves up a little bit extra for the playoff time of the year.”