DENVER — Despite showing signs of their 27 day layoff, the Dartmouth Big Green pulled out a 4-1 win over the Northern Michigan Wildcats, getting timely scoring from their big guns and excellent goaltending from senior Mike Devine to advance to the championship game of the Wells Fargo Denver Cup, where they will play either host Denver or Sacred Heart.
“You have to go back the basics when you’re off for a long time,” said senior J.T. Wyman, who got the game-winning goal and an assist. “We want to keep things simple defensively and not give them too much in the defensive zone. Hard work is a staple of our game, so that’s what we wanted to focus on tonight.”
The Wildcats used their speed to set the tempo early, keeping the Big Green pinned in their own zone often. As the period moved on, Dartmouth appeared to settle down and started to generate chances. Andrew Owsiak had a nice chance when he carried the puck out from behind the net and spun around, sending the puck on Wildcats’ netminder Brian Stewart, who made the save.
“They’re a good team,” said Big Green coach Bob Gaudet. “They were on top of us early. Our goalie kept us in that first period. They had 15 shots, and a lot of them were really high quality shots. We were fortunate to get out of that period with a tie.”
Dartmouth got on the board first on a broken play when Wildcats’ defenseman Derek May skated back to pick up the puck near the red line after Dartmouth had cleared it. May attempted to spin and throw the puck back in the offensive zone, but misfired, and Owsiak grabbed it and skated down the left side boards. As he hit the top of the circle, Owsiak fed the puck cross ice to Rob Smith, who dropped it back to Joe Gaudet. Gaudet rifled the puck top corner at the 8:07 mark of the period.
Dartmouth was unable to generate sustained pressure after the goal however, and the Wildcats continued to test Dartmouth goalie Mike Devine. Jared Brown had a great chance as he flew down the right side boards, sending a shot low that Devine just stopped.
The Wildcats finally got on the board late in the period on a brilliant play by Mark Olver, who skated up the left side boards to the neutral zone. As he hit the red line, he fed a perfect pass just out of reach of a diving Gaudet to a streaking Phil Fox on the right side. Fox broke in alone on Devine and fired it home at the 16:08 mark of the period.
“We did a good job in a lot of areas and created a lot of chances, but we didn’t finish the way we wanted to,” said Wildcats’ coach Walt Kyle.
Dartmouth got a power play early in the second period, and had a good chance when John Gibson fired a shot from the left point that hit the outside of the left post.
The Wildcats meanwhile, had several golden chances to take the lead. Nick Sirota got a pass in the left circle and had an open shooting lane, but held on too long, and a Dartmouth defender blocked the shot. Moments later, Sirota spearheaded a rush off a Dartmouth turnover in their offensive zone that led to a three-on-one. Sirota carried the puck along the left side boards and fed a pass to Fox in the slot, but Fox got in too close and Joe Stejskal broke up the play, steering the puck into the right corner.
“We had trouble with our power play tonight,” said Kyle. “We have to move the puck much better and take advantage of our opportunities.”
Dartmouth seized the lead on a power play. Connor Shields took a few steps in from the right side boards near the top of the circle and fired a shot that Stewart stopped, but nobody tied up Dartmouth’s leading scorer Wyman in the crease, and Wyman backhanded the puck through Stewart’s legs at 12:16 of the period.
“We’re just always looking to get shots on the power play,” said Wyman. “Shields tried to get a shot through, and it actually got blocked by a Northern Michigan player, and I just kind of redirected it. Luckily, the goalie was going with the original shot and it went by him.”
“Getting that lead was huge,” said Gaudet. “We were starting to match their intensity and play with a little bit more poise, so it was nice to get rewarded that way, to get a big goal. I thought the guys played better as the game went on.”
Dartmouth started the third period with a lot of jump. Rob Pritchard had a nice attempt on a snap shot that Stewart got his right shoulder on, and Adam Estoclet and Scott Fleming combined on a nice two-on-one when Estoclet fed Fleming in the crease, but Stewart got his pads down.
“We wanted to keep it simple,” said Gaudet of the Big Green’s game plan for third period. “Just keep the puck deep, and make sure we didn’t turn it over in bad areas in the neutral zone and especially coming out of our zone.”
The Wildcats regrouped however, and kept Dartmouth on their heels for much of the rest of the game. Mark Olver hit a post from down low, and Erik Spady hit the left post with a shot from the point. Dartmouth collapsed towards the center, trying to keep the play to the perimeter and block shots.
“They had really good down low play,” said Gaudet. “They make a lot of plays behind the net and it creates a lot of challenge defensively for us.”
“A one goal lead is the toughest lead to hold in hockey,” said Wyman. “You always have that in the back of your head so you don’t want to take too many chances offensively.”
Dartmouth got two late insurance goals to put the game out of reach. First, a centering attempt by the Wildcats was intercepted by Matt Reber, who streaked down the right side behind the D, slid across the crease and held the puck till Stewart committed, then slid a backhand into the open net at 14:57.
At 17:42, moments after Stewart won a footrace against Shields to knock the puck aside and prevent a breakaway, Wyman picked up the puck behind the net and fed a pass to Nick Johnson in the slot, who redirected it in.
“I think this was a good road win for us,” said Gaudet. “We haven’t played in so long that it’s like starting the season fresh.”