AMHERST, Mass. — It was like dj vu all over again.
For the third time in two days, the top-seeded team in an NCAA regional was pushed to the brink. This time it was defending national champion Denver, with CHA champion Bemidji State fighting hard.
But similar to Friday’s near-upsets between Boston College and Mercyhurst in the East and Colorado College and Colgate in the Midwest, the Pioneers escaped with a one-goal victory, this one coming in dramatic fashion with senior Kevin Ulanski’s goal in overtime.
With a draw in the offensive zone, Denver’s Gabe Gauthier won the puck back to Brett Skinner at the point. Ulanski headed to the left side of the net and was in perfect position for Skinner’s shot to hit him in the right shin and bank into the net.
The goal was reviewed by instant replay and was allowed to stand, as the deflection was ruled incidental.
The goal, at 3:26 of overtime, brought to a close the first overtime game of the tournament as well as the short, but exciting, Cinderella ride for the Beavers.
“I’m not to sure [how it went in],” said Ulanski, who finished the game with two goals and an assist in his first game back after missing four games with a knee injury. “It was kind of fluke tonight but we were fortunate enough to get the bounce.”
The goal spoiled what many in the Mullins Center might have considered a surprise performance from the underdog Beavers. One person who wasn’t a bit surprised was head coach Tom Serratore.
“It was exactly the game I thought it would be,” said Serratore. “I realize the people in the audience didn’t think that. But if you look at what we’ve accomplished in the last two years, the wars that we’ve had, you understand why I expect things like this.”
Denver coach George Gwozdecky was impressed by the Beavers’ play, though he added that he didn’t need any more reasons to respect the CHA power. Throughout much of the game, said Gwozdecky, Bemidji successfully provided trouble for the Pioneers with their aggressiveness.
“I thought that [Bemidji] did a real good job of pressuring us, especially our power play,” said Gwozdecky. “I thought we adjusted to it as time went on but for much of the game we struggled with it.”
For the hero, Ulanski, his three-point and game-winning performance was the perfect welcome back to the lineup.
“He’s been a terrific player for us,” said Gwozdecky of the senior who now had 29 points on the year. “His point totals may not show that, but he’s been just so terrific for us in so many ways.
“He’s such a smart player that he makes everyone on the ice better. For him to be able to score, that’s kind of icing on the cake.”
Following a similar script as the tournament’s opening game on Friday between BC and Mercyhurst, Bemidji opened the scoring early. Shane Holman redirected a John Haider shot from the left point past Denver goaltender Glenn Fisher (22 saves) at 1:20 to give the Beavers a 1-0 lead.
Denver, though, would answer. At 5:35, Andrew Thomas fired a shot through traffic from the left point that beat Climie (45 saves) glove side to knot the game at 1.
The goal ended a shutout streak of 177 minutes, 41 seconds for Climie that dated back to March 5.
Midway through the period, Bemidji briefly controlled play and for its efforts regained the lead. Jean-Guy Gervais’ centering pass banked off the legs of Pioneer defenseman Matt Laatsch and past Fisher for the 2-1 edge at 11:14.
Just 64 seconds later, though, Denver answered with a Tom May shot from the left faceoff dot that sneaked through the pads of Climie and trickled over the goal line to send the game to first intermission knotted at 2.
Denver held a decisive territorial advantage in the period and on the shot chart, outshooting the Beavers, 18-6.
In the second period, Denver took its first lead early. Ulanski got his first goal of the game when he one-timed a pass at the left faceoff dot that beat Climie five-hole for the 3-2 Pioneer lead.
Later, Bemidji showed signs of life and during a four-minute span peppered Fisher with shots, the best a Brendan Cook bid on a rebound attempt. Fisher, though, withstood the barrage and took a one-goal lead into the third period.
That was a good sign for the Pioneers, who entered Saturday with a 21-0-1 record when leading after two periods this season.
Bemidji, though, cared little for that statistic and at 2:17 Cook deflected a Peter Jonsson shot on the power play that beat Fisher to even the game once more.
Despite Denver’s best efforts to end the game in regulation, the Beavers hung on, thanks to solid play by Climie, including stops on Paul Stastny and Ryan Dingle in the final two minutes.
Denver, with the win, advances to Sunday afternoon’s regional final where it will look to make its first back-to-back trips to the Frozen Four since the school made three straight appearances from 1971 to 1973.
Bemidji, which won both the regular-season and tournament championships in the CHA, finishes its season at 23-13-1.