DENVER — Sometimes, teams are good enough to win a game even if they don’t show up for the full 60 minutes.
Such was the case Saturday night, as the University of Denver overcame a poor first period to beat Michigan Tech, 4-2, to advance to St. Paul, Minn., and the WCHA Final Five tournament.
Despite coming out weakly, the Pioneers got on the board first. About six and a half minutes in, Jesse Martin came down, beat two Tech defensemen and slid the puck five-hole on MTU goaltender Josh Robinson (34 saves).
A little over a minute later, already on a power play, the Huskies got it extended by five minutes when Pioneers’ defenseman John Lee got a contact-to-the-head major for taking down MTU’s Eric Kattelus.
Though they didn’t score on the 1:14 of five-on-three, Tech kept pouring on the pressure and finally broke through with 61 seconds left in the major penalty when Ryan Bunger tipped a Derek Cousens’ shot from the point past DU goaltender Marc Cheverie (28 saves).
“With a two-man advantage and then the five minute major, they kill that off and that’s a big momentum boost for them,” said MTU coach Jamie Russell.
The Denver fans got prematurely excited with 5:48 left to play in the first when the goal judge inadvertently turned on the goal lights, but there was nothing close to a goal on the play and the score remained tied.
“I thought that was a great first period,” said Russell. “We outshoot the number one team in the country 16-4; we had some good opportunities, we hit the post as well in the first period. We had a chance to be up after one, but playing obviously a very talented team that is extremely well-coached, they know how to win [and] we were pleased to be tied after one.”
“We gave our fans nothing to cheer about, but we got our guys’ hearts started,” said DU coach George Gwozdecky. “I think Michigan Tech got our guys’ hearts started by playing as hard as they were.”
The teams battled through much of the second. The Pioneers’ Paul Phillips saw a golden opportunity when he pinched in to snag a rebound and hopefully snap it into the open net, but MTU’s Drew Dobson dove across the crease to block the shot.
Four minutes later, Pioneers’ captain Rhett Rakhshani got hit hard behind the Denver net, causing the teams to start scuffling, resulting in both teams losing players due to grasping the facemask violations. The incident fired up the already-rebounding Pioneers who broke through in the last two minutes of the period.
With 1:36 left in the middle frame, Matt Donovan curled around the right circle and passed the puck to John Lee at the top of the zone, who blasted a rocket high past Robinson to break the tie.
Then, while on the penalty kill with 5.4 seconds remaining in the period, Joe Colborne backhanded a Rakhshani pass from the high slot past Robinson to make it 3-1.
“The one right at the end of the second period with five seconds left on the power play, we made a mistake, dumped the puck on net and Josh, I felt awful for him,” said Russell. “He had the turnover on the short-handed goal. It could have deflated us.”
The Huskies regained their composure and narrowed the Pioneers’ lead back to one about halfway through the third when Peter Rohn chipped a shot past Cheverie.
“Tech makes a great play, picks the pocket of Patrick Wiercioch, a second later the puck’s in the net and it’s 3-2,” said Gwozdecky.
However, the Pioneers answered back 2:30 later. Kyle Ostrow took a drop pass from Martin and roofed the puck over Robinson’s right shoulder.
Russell pulled Robinson with a minute left to try and tie the game, but the Pioneers stayed strong to end the Huskies’ season.
“I think that Jamie Russell and his staff have done a wonderful job; I so much admire that team considering all the challenges they’ve had,” said Gwozdecky. “They come in here having had a very difficult year, without some of their top players in the lineup. That team last night and that team tonight, they competed so hard, they competed fair, I have the utmost respect for what that team did this weekend and has done over the last third of the season.”
The Pioneers advanced to the WCHA Final Five, where they will play a to-be-determined opponent on Friday.