DULUTH, Minn. — Winning streaks have been hard to come by for the Minnesota-Duluth men lately: two in the past 51 games — a three-game stretch at the end of last season and a three-game stretch which ended earlier this month.
Gaining a one-game win streak, and some momentum entering a brief holiday break, was the focus for the Bulldogs against No. 13 Denver in a WCHA game Saturday at the DECC.
Yet, Denver had its own concerns. The two-time defending Division I champions, seeking to continue their best phase this season, beat UMD 3-1 before a crowd of 4,645.
Denver (11-7-2 and 8-4-2 in the WCHA) swept the series and is 6-1 the past seven games to forge a momentary tie for second in the league with Minnesota. Fourth-place Colorado College had a chance to gain second place with a win at Alaska Anchorage later Saturday.
“We’re a younger team than last year, especially our defensemen, and we’re not scoring the same as last year, but the last six or seven games we’re playing smarter,” said Denver sophomore center Paul Stastny, the team’s scoring leader and son of NHL Hall of Famer Peter Stastny. “I’m not going to say we’re going to win another (NCAA) title, but anyone can win one, and we can make a good run for it.”
The win gave the Pioneers a five-point bulge over fifth-place UMD (7-10-3, 5-6-3) halfway through the season.
Second-period goals by Chris Butler and Mike Handza pulled Denver back from a 1-0 deficit. Handza’s goal came with just 30 seconds left.
UMD had decent opportunities throughout, especially in the first period, but again wasn’t accurate enough and was stalled by sophomore goalie Peter Mannino, the MVP of the 2005 Frozen Four. The Bulldogs were also 0-for-5 on power plays (0-12 for the series). Shots on goal were even at 31-31.
“If we played the whole game the way we did the first 15 minutes we probably would’ve won,” said freshman winger Michael Gergen, who had UMD’s goal. “We had a lot of good chances and they gave us some rebounds but we couldn’t get to them. We were a step too slow. We had some lapses, like for five minutes after their third goal, and we need to be better on the power play.”
For the second straight night, UMD took a 1-0 lead. Gergen drove a shot from the right circle at 4:49 that beat Mannino. It was his ninth goal of the season, tying him with Tim Stapleton for the team lead.
The Bulldogs were stopped on two first-period power plays. Mannino turned away center Matt McKnight from point-blank range on a man advantage at 8:45.
Shots on goal favored UMD 9-1 and 10-2 late in the opening period, and 10-5 after 20 minutes.
“That’s the kind of effort it takes to beat good teams like Denver,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “Denver has some experienced players, players who have won national championships, and they can make a difference.
“Not scoring on the power play all weekend was a reason we scored just three goals instead of four, five or six.”
A 5-on-3 power play gave the Pioneers a spark midway through the second period. Butler’s shot from slot clanked off the right pipe behind goalie Isaac Reichmuth with 9:25 left. Denver also had a 5-on-3 score in Friday’s 4-2 win as WCHA road teams went 4-0.
Handza, a junior right winger, earned his first goal of the season in the final seconds of the period, from the left circle, to break a 36-game streak without a score. That put Denver up 2-1.
“All week long we talked about being in a race for second or third place (in the WCHA) in the second half of the season. We had to approach this weekend like a playoff weekend. It was not do or die, but it was something we badly needed,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky.
Stastny’s goal at 6:02 of the third period took away much of UMD’s steam. He has five goals and 23 assists for 28 points to lead the Pioneers, and is third in the WCHA. The Bulldogs, 3-6-1 at home, were swept at the DECC for the third time this season.
Kevin Pates covers college hockey for the Duluth News Tribune.