MADISON, Wis. — Emerging from the visiting locker room, Brian Gifford was still dressed in his Pioneer fatigues except for one noticeable change. Instead of sporting Denver’s maroon helmet, Gifford donned a beat-up white hard hat, given afterwards to the ‘unsung hero’ of the game.
In this case, his teammates made the exception, as Gifford was anything but.
Despite getting out shot 35-21, Denver made good on its limited shot opportunities by scoring four times, including Gifford’s backhand winner in overtime, to steal a 4-3 victory from Wisconsin Friday night.
“When you get the chance, you’ve got to bury it,” Gifford said. “We didn’t have a ton of shots but when we did, they were quality shots.”
Not only were they quality, they were self-made, as the little bounces Denver (18-9-4, 14-7-3 WCHA) created for themselves provided the necessary dividends.
With overtime less than a minute old, Wisconsin (16-12-3, 13-8-2 WCHA) attempted to clear its own zone when center Tyler Ruegsegger was able to knock the clearing pass out of mid air and chip the puck to Gifford.
With Wisconsin clearing the zone, Gifford was all alone and backhanded the puck to UW Shane Connelly’s recently-vacated left side, setting off a mob scene opposite Denver’s bench that had Gifford at the center.
“He’s not a tremendous offensive threat, but his play compliments the other two guys (Rhett Rakhshani and Ruegsegger),” said DU coach George Gwozdecky, who moved Gifford, a third-line center, to the top line 10 days ago. “When you play with those two guys, you just have to be smart enough to know where to position yourself. Brian has the kind of hockey intellect to know how to do that.”
While Gifford wore the hard hat proudly, freshman center Joe Colborne could rightfully file a claim for it.
One game removed from scoring the game-tying goal in the final minute of third period against Colorado College, Colborne struck again with 15 seconds left on the clock. With an empty net behind him, Colborne’s bullet deflected off Connelly’s chest, came to rest on his right shoulder and slowly trickled across the goal line to tie the score at three.
“That was about the longest second of my life there,” Colborne joked. “We knew that if we got some shots on net that some good would happen. It’s always a great feeling when you can come through.”
Juxtapose to Wisconsin. The minute the puck crossed the line, Badger defenseman Ryan McDonagh slammed his stick into the boards, frustrated that Wisconsin couldn’t convert on two empty net chances in the final minute, and Connelly laid motionless, his face firmly planted on the ice.
“Would he like to have that tying goal back? Absolutely,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said bluntly.
The win moves Denver to three points ahead of Wisconsin in the conference standings and extends its all-time Kohl Center record to 12-2-2.
“It’s a really tight race in the WCHA and we have to start distancing ourselves from other teams,” Gifford said. “We knew that this could be a big turn for us at the end of the season. Hopefully this is a start of something big.”
From the outset, the Badgers wasted no time to turning their week-off energy into early production, drawing three Denver power plays in the first 20 minutes, converting two of them into scoring opportunities.
Thirty-nine seconds into UW’s first power play, the Badgers, after a bevy of open-net scoring chances, connected when Michael Davies found junior co-captain Blake Geoffrion in front of the net, scoring his 12th goal of the season on a shot that beat Marc Cheverie over the glove.
After UW’s third power play expired six minutes later, a Cody Goloubef shot from the point deflected in front of the net and was lodged in a cluster to the right of the net. Patrick Johnson, with the puck sitting at his feet, took advantage of the opportunity, sliding the puck around the right post, reaching his stick over Cheverie and poking the puck in the net to double the lead.
Wisconsin was out shooting Denver 11-1 and harnessed all of the game’s momentum until the Pioneer took their second shot.
The Pioneer took advantage of a Wisconsin interference penalty halfway into their power play, when Kyle Ostrow’s left skate deflected a J.P. Testwuide past Connelly to save some bit of first-period dignity for Denver.
The Pioneer got back to even on their fourth shot of the game when Ruegsegger snuck a wrister underneath a diving Connelly save attempt just 58 seconds into the second period, a moment that seemed to glue Denver back together.
“It’s always good to come right out after an intermission and try to get a quick one,” Ruegsegger said. “We obviously had a really slow start and Wisconsin came out very hard.”
Wisconsin looked to pull ahead for good when Michael Davies notched his sixth goal of the year when he beat Cheverie with a wrister on an odd-man rush at 2:12, helping Wisconsin retake the lead.
Berated and frustrated by the Badgers’ defense, Gwozdecky wasn’t afraid to admit that Denver didn’t live up to its game plan on Friday night. He’s fortunate that he’ll get to go back to the drawing board with two points under his belt.
“It’s not often you play like that and be able to build on it off a victory,” he said. “”We’re capable of a lot more tomorrow night.”