ST. PAUL, Minn. — Advantage Denver. For now.
The Pioneers won a title game in a familiar fashion Saturday night at the Xcel Energy Center. Their 1-0 victory over rival Colorado College, sparked by 25 saves by Peter Mannino and a second-period goal by Luke Fulghum, was a reminder of their 2004 national championship victory over Maine. They limited the opponent’s chances, especially near the goal, and sweated out a late power play to win by the same score.
It broke a 2-2 tie in the season series against the Tigers and gave the Pioneers the Broadmoor Trophy for the second time in four seasons.
But now the Tigers will be looking to tie this series back up when it matters the most — the Frozen Four. Both teams likely will be No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament when the bracket is revealed Sunday morning, leaving only the national semifinals or finals as possibilities to see these in-state rivals square off again.
If they do, CC’s forwards may cringe at the prospect of another night facing Peter Mannino. A shutout Saturday — the first in a WCHA championship game — put his streak of not allowing a Tigers goal to 142 minutes, 33 seconds. He hasn’t allowed a goal in his last three games.
“The team is playing great right now,” Mannino said. “We’re blocking shots, doing little things, and it’s a result of great defense, I think.”
And that’s a fine way to be entering the NCAA tournament.
Colorado College coach Scott Owens said he couldn’t remember an instance of two teams playing for a championship, then sharing a charter flight home after the game. But that’s what they were set to do following Saturday’s game, with Denver having one more piece of hardware than the Tigers.
The teams shared the WCHA regular-season championship and claimed five of the six spots on the all-WCHA first team, and honors for the coach of the year, player of the year, defensive player of the year and rookie of the year.
But Mannino and Fulghum weren’t included on any of the all-league teams, so their performances in the championship game, to Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky, gave them some of the attention they deserve.
“I feel good for those two young guys,” Gwozdecky said. “I thought they deserved a little more recognition, but perhaps being able to accomplish this feat tonight and over the weekend is probably the kind of recognition that they needed and they deserve.”
Fulghum tied for the team lead with his 21st goal of the season with 3:04 remaining in the second period. He swiped the puck from a CC player, looped from the left side of the zone to the right and fired a shot into the top left corner of the net.
Up to that point, it was a chess match, Fulghum said. The first period was especially tight, with each team not looking as familiar with the other as it actually is and playing a controlled game. But Fulghum’s goal seemed to open things up slightly for the Pioneers.
The Tigers just had trouble getting the puck to the net. They finished with 25 shots on Mannino, but they could muster only three in the third period, an example of Denver’s stifling defensive effort.
Gwozdecky mused that some people have asked how well the Denver defense would hold up in pressure situations. “I think perhaps we’ve answered that question,” he said.
The Tigers weren’t able to find an answer for Mannino, who played well despite not seeing much sustained pressure himself. The three shots in the third period speaks volumes about the Pioneers defense but it also doesn’t put the CC offense in a good light.
“That’s definitely not a good stat,” Tigers forward Marty Sertich said. “We needed to play a little more desperate than we did. We knew it wasn’t going to be a pretty goal that was going to tie it. We just didn’t get guys in front of the net and we just couldn’t pick up that garbage goal we were looking for.”
Said Owens: “We just didn’t penetrate very well. We didn’t play our game the way we’re capable of playing.”
CC goaltender Curtis McElhinney made 26 saves en route to being named the all-tournament goaltender, but he was victimized twice by the Pioneers. Denver’s Paul Stastny was denied a highlight-reel goal with 11:44 left in the third period on a video review.
Stastny got two CC defenders to go down to the ice, then moved around them and fired a shot to the upper left corner of the net. But the automatic review that is given to all goals in the Final Five showed Pioneers forward Ryan Dingle’s skate in the crease, nullifying the score.
So a 1-0 game came down to the final minutes for the Pioneers again. They had to go on the penalty kill late again, though it wasn’t as dramatic as Maine’s 6-on-3 advantage in the final minute of last season’s championship game.
Dingle was sent off for holding with 4:39 remaining, but CC didn’t get any great chances to tie the game and ended the power play early when Joey Crabb took a boarding penalty.
Mannino and the Pioneers then rode out the rest of the game to deliver the Pioneers’ 14th WCHA playoff title, breaking a tie with Minnesota for the lead.
Denver captain Matt Laatsch told his teammates before the game that championships bring teams together. That process is in full swing, with the Pioneers playing at a high level.
“I don’t think it can be any better,” Mannino said. “We really wanted to get things accomplished here. … We’re on a little bit of a roll here and I hope we continue.”