AMHERST, Mass. — If it’s playoff time, Denver can count on Gabe Gauthier.
Less than 24 hours after the junior posted three assists, he scored a hat trick to lead his defending national champion Pioneers to a 4-2 victory over New Hampshire in the NCAA Northeast Regional Final.
The win sends Denver back to the Frozen Four where it will play rival Colorado College in the national semifinals.
“He’s one of our offensive leaders,” said Pioneers’ head coach George Gwozdecky, “and he’s our best two-way player.
“When we were recruiting him, I asked him what his favorite part of [the game] is. He said he loved to play in the playoffs. That’s so different from the kind of response we get from most recruits.”
“It feels good,” said Gauthier about his regional Most Outstanding Player performance, “but the feeling is even better to win and go on to the Frozen Four.”
The Pioneers (30-9-2) were determined to rebound from a less-than-stellar performance Saturday against Bemidji State. They didn’t disappoint, dominating the first period territorially and on the shot chart (18-6).
“In the first period,” said UNH head coach Dick Umile, “they really took it to us. We were kind of standing there and they were moving.”
“We played an all-around game,” said the Denver’s Ryan Dingle. “We came into the first game flat. The game plan [today] was to come out strong.”
Even so, UNH (26-11-5) was able to match Denver on the scoreboard — the only statistic that really matters once the final horn sounds.
“Their goalie stood on his head in the first period,” admitted Gauthier. “You can’t let yourself get frustrated. We kept working hard and we stuck to our game plan.”
Gauthier opened the scoring at 13:42 with his first goal on the weekend, quickly stuffing home a rebound in front on Wildcats netminder Kevin Regan. UNH responded less than a minute later, however, on a heads-up play by sophomore Jacob Micflikier.
When rookie defenseman Brad Flaishans’ blast from the blueline missed wide left, the puck bounced off the boards to the right side of the net. It was there where Micflikier, on his knees, scooped up the loose puck and put it behind fallen Denver netminder Peter Mannino.
The goal snapped the freshman goaltender’s scoreless streak at 200:36, which included three consecutive shutouts — two against Colorado College.
“We were very fortunate that we came out of the first period 1-1,” said Wildcats co-captain Tyson Teplitsky. “We were happy it was 1-1. They definitely outplayed us.”
UNH rebounded with one of its better periods as the game moved into the second stanza. Outshooting the Pioneers 17-12, the Wildcats settled into their own style. But, again, the teams emerged tied, 2-2, after 40 minutes.
“We bounced back,” said Umile about his team’s efforts in the middle frame. “It was a game from there.”
New Hampshire appeared to grab hold of the game’s momentum at 13:27 when Denver’s Matt Carle was whistled for pulling down Daniel Winnik from behind on a breakaway. The officials immediately signaled for a penalty shot and the crowd — and both benches — came alive.
“It’s exciting whenever you have a penalty shot,” said Gauthier, whose comment drew laughs at the post-game press conference. “No matter who has it, it’s still exciting to watch. Obviously, we were behind Peter.”
Winnik, the hero in last night’s overtime win over Harvard, capitalized on his opportunity, faking Mannino to the ice and sliding the puck around the netminder’s outstretched legs.
“It was definitely a momentum shift,” said Teplitsky. “For Daniel to get that goal, it gave a boost to our team. It added to the momentum we were getting at the time.”
On the other side of the ice, Denver remained positive.
“The mood was still up,” Gauthier observed. “The leaders and captains said, ‘It’s just a goal boys, we still have time to come back.’”
“Whether it’s a save or it is let in,” explained Mannino, “it’s just another shot … I let it in, so I had to shut the door.”
The Pioneers tied the game late in the second period while skating with the man-advantage. In a textbook display of power play puck movement, Carle passed the disc from the left point down to Adrian Veideman in the left circle. The sophomore, who did not play yesterday, quickly moved it to Gauthier in the high slot for a one-timer that eluded Regan at 18:02.
“It doesn’t get much easier than that,” remarked Gauthier in recognizing the work of his teammates to set him up for the tally.
Ironically, Veideman wasn’t even supposed to be on that side of the ice, but he was filling in for Luke Fulghum, who had gone to the locker room to temporarily nurse an injury suffered blocking a shot.
“Veideman has never played that side of the ice on the power play,” said Gwozdecky. “Because of the angle he had, he was able to feed Gauthier. Call it fate or whatever. I’m just glad that [missing Fulghum] helped force my hand.”
The game remained knotted deep into the third period with each team securing quality scoring chances.
Regan made perhaps his best save at 13:37 while Denver was on the power play, sticking out his pad to deny Paul Stastny’s backdoor chance at the side of the net.
Less than three minutes later, at 16:17, Pioneers’ freshman Ryan Dingle found one of the few ways to beat Regan when he poked in a loose rebound in the slot after the puck had been thrown into a mass of players in front.
“We all crashed the net,” said Dingle. “Carle took a shot and somehow the puck came to me and I just put it in.”
“I got a piece of it with my stick or skate,” explained Regan, “but then I just totally lost it. I had no idea where it was. I thought it was underneath me and next thing I knew, they were celebrating.”
Twenty-two seconds later, the Wildcats had one more excellent opportunity to tie the game after Sean Collins stole the puck in the Denver zone. His shot from the right circle was stopped by Mannino, but the rebound dropped onto the stick of Brett Hemingway at the side of the net. Unfortunately for the sophomore, he spun around and backhanded the puck off the right post.
Gauthier finished the game’s scoring at 19:37 after Kevin Ulanski passed up an opportunity at the empty net in favor of a pass to his linemate. With the assist, Gauthier skated in on a breakaway and slid home his 23rd of the season.
“It came down to three minutes,” said Umile, “and, obviously, they made the play … That’s hockey. That’s how it goes.”
Regan finished the game with 42 saves to Mannino’s 31. UNH was 0-for-5 on the power play, while Denver was 1-for-8.
“I thought it was a terrific college hockey game,” said Gwozdecky. “Momentum changes, obviously lead changes, hard fought. Both teams played well, both goalies played well. It was a great game; the best of what college hockey is all about.”