COLUMBUS, Ohio — What a time for Denver to find its touch on the power play.
The Pioneers are a victory away from defending their national championship after scoring six times with the man advantage in emphatically dispatching in-state rival Colorado College 6-2 in Thursday’s first semifinal of the Frozen Four at Value City Arena.
Luke Fulghum and Gabe Gauthier each scored a pair of goals and Denver’s highly-touted defensive pair of Brett Skinner (four assists) and Matt Carle (one goal, two assists) combined for seven points in a complete undressing of Colorado College’s penalty kill.
Denver had just three power-play goals in its last eight games, dating to the final weekend of the regular season and covering 48 opportunities. But the Pioneers scored four times on their first seven opportunities and finished 6-for-12.
“Having the power play and taking advantage of the power-play opportunities is huge,” Gauthier said. “Every guy on both units knew that they had to do something extra to get a chance because we have been struggling with our power play. We’ve been working on it in the past few weeks. It was a big game and we needed some guys to step up, which they did. The power play definitely did its role.”
So did freshman Peter Mannino. He may have been lost in the special-teams madness, but the Denver goaltender looked solid when he was challenged, making 41 saves to put the Pioneers in the national championship game, where they’ll play the winner of Thursday night’s Minnesota-North Dakota game.
Colorado College outshot Denver 43-29 but that wasn’t anywhere near indicative of the flow of the game, in which a team was on the power play for 19:12 of the 60 minutes.
The sixth meeting of the season between the teams confirmed the Pioneers’ advantage for the year. Colorado College led the series 2-1 before Denver gained a share of the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA regular-season champions on the final day of the season, then won the WCHA playoff championship in a 1-0 victory over the Tigers.
The victory Thursday gave the Pioneers (31-9-2) a 148th victory in the all-time series and denied CC (31-9-3) its 100th victory against its neighbor 60-some miles to the north.
The power-play success was stunning, not even considering Denver’s recent track record with the man advantage. The Pioneers scored in a number of ways.
There was a drive up the middle by Fulghum. There was a point shot that hit Fulghum’s rear end and went into the net. There was a shot from the point by Carle and a hard wrist shot from the faceoff circle by Gauthier.
Then there was a perfect power-play goal, with Jeff Drummond finding an open Gauthier at the top of the crease for a tip-in and a 5-1 lead.
“The thought the one thing we were able to do today is we were able to get shooting lanes open,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “Over the last few weeks, we’ve been a little bit static in our movements away from the puck, and when we did have the puck we were almost to the point where we were just passing the puck around the perimeter. We looked great at times moving the puck around the perimeter; we looked like the ’72 Russians at times, but getting the puck into the scoring area and on the net was a whole different challenge.”
It was CC’s worst special-teams outing of the season, and not even the Hobey Baker finalist combination of Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling could help get things going. The nation’s top two scorers were held without a point by the Pioneers again.
In the six-game season series between the teams, Sterling was held without a point and Sertich had only two points, both on goals.
Brian Salcido and James Brannigan scored power-play goals for the Tigers, and goaltender Curtis McElhinney made 23 saves. McElhinney allowed at least five goals for the second time in three games, including a 6-5 regional semifinal victory over Colgate.
But there was just too much going against the Tigers on the penalty kill, where CC defenseman Mark Stuart said Denver was able to get traffic in front of the net to take advantage. The Tigers were penalized 14 times for 28 minutes, giving the Pioneers a total of 12 minutes on the power play and sending the roof down on the Tigers.
“I thought we were dumb on a lot of penalties,” CC coach Scott Owens said. “We made poor decisions when we had people in position, and I thought we got a little frustrated. We haven’t been in this position a lot and I thought we got frustrated with everything and lost our composure a little bit, and I very rarely say that about our team.”
Fulghum scored both of his goals in the first period, giving the Pioneers a 2-0 lead after the first period. On the second, he only had to stand in the way of a Skinner shot and have it graze off his breezers, slowing it just enough to possibly fool McElhinney.
Carle gave Denver a 3-0 lead before a Salcido shot went off the Pioneers defenseman’s skate for a CC goal to cut the deficit to 3-1. It was CC’s first goal against Denver in 153 minutes, 52 seconds and its first against Mannino in 172:22.
Gauthier scored with 9.5 seconds left in the second period, effectively crushing CC’s chances at a comeback. He added his second goal of the game in the third period for a 5-1 lead before Brannigan made it 5-2 with a turnaround shot from the right side of Mannino’s net.
Veideman scored Denver’s final goal of the game — fittingly, on another power play — with 44.6 seconds left to wrap things up and add one more wound to CC as it exited the Frozen Four.
Yet the Pioneers think they can do better in the championship game.
“We didn’t play our best game tonight, offensively or defensively,” Gauthier said. “Fortunately, we did have a great power-play unit that helped us out tremendously, but we definitely need to work on the stuff that we’ve been talking about prior to this weekend — getting the puck in deep, putting pressure on the defensemen and especially getting back on our transitions because that’s probably the best part of our game right now.”
A power play that can produce six goals is a nice addition.