DULUTH, Minn. — Falling behind hasn’t been in Minnesota Duluth’s best interest this season.
The Bulldogs had lost just once in seven games when scoring the first goal through 17 games of their college mens hockey schedule.
When the opponent scores first, UMD is 5-5, including Friday’s loss to open a series against league-leading Denver at the DECC.
The No. 12 Bulldogs, seeking a better start Saturday against No. 2 Denver in the final game of 2009, did just that, scoring three goals on six chances in the first nine minutes, then added three in a dominant third period on the way to a 6-3 victory before 4,568 fans.
Sophomore center Jack Connolly had a pair of goals to lead UMD (11-6-1 and 8-5-1 WCHA) and it was freshman defenseman Wade Bergman, with his first collegiate goal, putting the Bulldogs up 1-0.
“We get off to a great start and, except for a lull in the second period, we kept our intensity going,” said Connolly, who tied Justin Fontaine for the team goal-scoring lead at 12. “This was a huge confidence boost for us to play well against such a good team. It was a really, really big win.”
Denver (11-5-2 and 9-2-2) rallied to tie the game 3-3 with two second-period goals, but the Bulldogs put the game away in the third, starting midway through on a Kyle Schmidt goal. Connolly followed with 6:13 left and Rob Bordson with 2:49 left.
UMD outshot Denver 27-26 and star goalie Marc Cheverie of the Pioneers, the WCHA save-percentage leader, allowed his most goals of the season. The reunited line of Jack Connolly centering Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine was stellar, combining for two goals and six assists.
“Because of the second period, we put ourselves in position to win the game,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky, whose team rallied from a 3-1 deficit. “But the Connolly line gave us trouble all night and our transition game bogged down. They’re a dynamic line and have great anticipation; pucks just seem to come to their sticks.”
Bergman collected his goal from the right point, beating a screened Cheverie inside the far post at 4:38 and Jack Connolly followed 2:22 later from the bottom of the right circle.
The furious pace continued, as Denver scored 18 seconds later, on a play by center Tyler Ruegsegger at the crease in front of goalie Brady Hjelle. If that wasn’t enough, the third goal in less than two minutes came as UMD’s Travis Oleksuk took a Bordson pass and caught Cheverie out of place. The right side of the net was open and UMD was up 3-1 before the game was nine minutes old.
“The first goal gave everyone the confidence that ‘We can play with this team.’ And we fed off of that,” said Bergman, who is from Calgary, Alberta. “In the third period, even with the score tied, we didn’t sit back; we came at them until the end of the game.”
Second periods haven’t been good for UMD, including Saturday. Seconds after the end of a Denver power play, the Pioneers continued extreme pressure and winger Matt Glasser scored at 4:23. Winger Anthony Maiani, who had two assists Friday, tipped a Ruegsegger shot on a power play with 5:41 left in the second period.
Schmidt inspired UMD with his third-period goal and Jack Connolly came through the crease for a goal and Bordson slowed down on a power-play rush and deked behind Cheverie.
“That’s as good of a third period as we’ve had this year,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “Everyone on the team elevated their play for the game. We had great intensity from the start.”
Hjelle is now 7-1-1 at the DECC in his brief career, starting consecutive games for the first time in seven weeks. Bordson, Schmidt and Oleksuk all had a goal and an assist.
The win left the Bulldogs fourth in the league at midseason with 17 points, three points from first place and one point ahead of fifth-place St. Cloud State.
UMD is off for three weeks before resuming play against Mercyhurst College of Erie, Pa., on Jan. 2 in the Catamount Cup at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Vermont plays Alabama-Huntsville in the opening round.
Denver is home for the Denver Cup on Jan. 1-2 against Nebraska-Omaha and streaking Boston College.