DENVER — Before a crowd of 6,088, the No. 2 Denver Pioneers beat the Minnesota Golden Gophers, 5-1. Sophomore forward Joe Colborne had a hat trick while Rhett Rakhshani and Patrick Wiercioch each had two assists, and goalie Marc Cheverie finished with 32 saves.
It was the first time in their history that the Pioneers swept all four regular season games from the Gophers.
“We talked about it before the game,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “I think they certainly wanted to have a better start than they did last night. There’s no question that being able to be the only team to accomplish what was at stake, I think the guys wanted to be part of history. The first team ever to win four games against our traditional rival Minnesota in the regular season; it’s never been done before in 60 years. All the great teams. We’ve had teams that have beaten the Russians, we’ve had teams that have only lost one game, teams that have won back-to-back national titles, all those players, all those great teams, nobody has ever swept a four-game series against Minnesota in the regular season.”
Denver got off to a great start. On its first shift, Rakhshani had a doorstep backhand chance, and on the next shift, Brandon Vossberg had Kent Patterson down but lifted his shot wide.
“We started well and continued to get better and better,” said Gwozdecky. “It was as good a Saturday night as we have had all year long. We had some penalty issues in the first period; we got through those.”
The Gophers got the first power play at 2:09, getting a chance to settle down. However, the Gophers didn’t get much going on the power play. Their first good offensive chance came after the penalty expired when Josh Birkholz ripped a snap shot from the slot that Cheverie stopped.
Denver got called for several more penalties, and the penalty kill stayed strong, with Anthony Maiani and Kyle Ostrow teaming up for a couple of short-handed chances that tested Patterson from the slot.
“Everyone was going, fourth line, first line, ‘D’, it was awesome,” said Cheverie.
At the other end of the ice, Cheverie was strong when he had to be, making a shoulder save on a good wrist shot by Cade Fairchild and standing tall against a charge by Tony Lucia.
With time ticking down on the first period and seven seconds left on a power play, the Pioneers got the first goal. Rakhshani carried the puck up the left side boards and backhanded a pass to Colborne coming down towards the far post, and Colborne tipped it high past Patterson at 18:58.
Denver built on its lead very early in the second when Maiani was somehow allowed to walk out of the left corner with the puck to the left post and backhand it past Patterson at 1:07.
“The last month, Anthony’s played his best hockey for us,” said Gwozdecky. “Certain guys in the first half of the season were squeezing the stick pretty hard, and for whatever reason Anthony couldn’t get it going, but he has been maybe our best player throughout this last month.
The Pioneers had a golden chance to build more of a cushion when they got 1:23 of five-on-three power play time. Gwozdecky called timeout to give his top line a chance to rest. On the power play, Denver did everything but score. Rakhshani raced in two-on-one and dragged the puck clear into the slot, but lost control there. Colborne, staring at wide open net, had a puck hop over his stick on a pass, and Tyler Ruegsegger hit the right post from the slot.
Minnesota had a great chance near the midway point of the period when a shot by Birkholz from the bottom of the left circle hit Cheverie and bounced up behind him into the crease, but it was cleared before anybody from Minnesota could get to the rebound.
Denver got another great chance when their continuous pressure drew two penalties, giving them two minutes of five-on-three. This time, they converted on a pretty play. Wiercioch took the puck down the slot and passed to Rakhshani at the bottom of the left circle, and Rakhshani one-timed a pass to Colborne at the far post, who tapped it in at 12:39.
“I was feeling pretty bad about that (the miss on the first five-on-three), and I told Rhett that if he found me again I’d make sure I buried it,” said Colborne. “It just goes to show how good he is. He made a great pass under the stick and I was there to tap it in.”
“He’s much more assertive,” said Gwozdecky of Colborne. “He’s using his strength, he’s using his size, and as a result having a lot more success.”
Colborne completed the hat trick early in the third while short-handed. He reached his long stick out near the left side boards to poke the puck away from Fairchild, then picked it up and raced down the ice with Rakhshani on a two-on-one. As he neared the hashmarks, he looked off to Rakhshani, then dragged the puck around Fairchild to the middle of the crease and slid it into the net past a sprawled Patterson at 2:16.
“I used my reach, and thank goodness I had it because he had me beat a little bit,” said Colborne. “I came down and was looking to feed Rhett because I feel like I owe him one or two after the way he’s been setting me up lately. Their D-man took away shot the whole way and coach has been harping on me all year to take the puck to the net so luckily it worked out.”
Brian Gifford scored his first of the season late in the game on a power play after Chris Knowlton picked up a John Ryder shot that ricocheted off the boards and sent it towards the slot, where Gifford got his stick on it and tapped it through Patterson’s five-hole at 17:31.
“I said the first time we saw them I think they’re the best team we’ve played this year,” said Gophers’ coach Don Lucia. “Starting with their goaltender, who has been obviously lights out against us. They’re really good defensively, they’ve got top end talent, and I think what makes them really good is the role players understand what their jobs are and the role players don’t need to score for them to be successful.”
The Gophers spoiled Cheverie’s shutout bid with 38.8 seconds left when Tony Lucia tipped a Mike Carman shot in the slot through Cheverie’s five-hole.
“Obviously, you’d like to get the shutout,” said Cheverie. “It would have been the icing on the cake I guess, but that doesn’t overshadow what the team’s accomplished tonight.”