College Hockey:
Denver tops Nebraska-Omaha, avoids sweep

— Sixth-ranked Denver has avoided being swept in a WCHA series since November 2008, and thanks to Pioneer freshmen Jason Zucker and Sam Brittain, that streak lives on for at least another week.

No. 12 Nebraska-Omaha (20-12-2 overall, 16-8-2 in the WCHA) didn’t seem quite its usual high-octane self in Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the visiting Pioneers (20-9-5, 16-7-3) in front of 11,504 at Qwest Center.  Denver did more than enough to frustrate its host, though, and two goals from Zucker and 27 saves from Brittain led the way.

“In a lot of ways, that was the effort we needed and the performance we needed,” DU head coach George Gwozdecky said of his team’s play on Saturday, a night that saw his Pioneers reach 20 wins on the campaign for the 10th season running.

“Obviously, you can never guarantee that you’re going to win, no matter how well you perform, but certainly it was important for so many reasons, especially for the psyche of this team.  We have been kind of, over the last four weeks, sputtering and playing pretty average at times and shooting ourselves in the foot.”

The Pioneers benefited from a near complete lack of that on Saturday, though, and for the first time in its past nine games, DU scored the night’s first goal.  Zucker did the honors, teaming up for a 2-on-1 rush into the UNO zone with linemate Drew Shore before beating Maverick goaltender John Faulkner high stick-side 3:58 into the game.

DU’s early lead didn’t last long, however.  Less than a minute after Zucker’s first goal of the night, UNO defenseman Michael Young made a rare presence in the goal-scoring column.  His third tally of the season, Young fired a long shot through traffic that sneaked its way through just inside the right side of the far post before Brittain could see what had happened.

UNO later took its only lead of the night at the 17:36 mark of Saturday’s first period.  It was another seldom-scoring Maverick who beat Brittain, with Brent Gwidt scoring his third of the year after picking up a loose puck in the slot and backhanding past the DU keeper.

Before the first period was out, though, UNO defenseman Bryce Aneloski took a holding penalty that shifted the momentum of the frame and arguably that of the rest of the game.

The Pioneers capitalized, scoring their only power play goal of the weekend.  Shore’s 21st goal of the season with 34 seconds left in Saturday’s first period tied the game up, and it was clear DU wouldn’t need another invitation in order to score again.

Comparing the Mavericks’ 5-2 victory over DU on Friday to UNO’s performance in Saturday’s first 40 minutes doesn’t flatter UNO.  The Mavericks often looked a step slower than they had in Friday’s win over the visiting Pioneers, and that missing pace combined with a galvanized DU strike force to allow the visitors to break away in Saturday’s final two periods.

Zucker’s second goal of the game didn’t take long to arrive, with the freshman phenom beating Faulkner for the eventual game-winning goal exactly one minute into Saturday’s second period.

It was a goal worthy of making its way onto any NHL highlight reel.  Zucker fended off a Maverick defender through much of the UNO zone while cradling the puck with the back of his stick blade before beating Faulkner with a gorgeous backhanded strike.

Zucker’s milestone 20th goal of the season prompted UNO head coach Dean Blais to pull Faulkner in favor of seldom-utilized sophomore goalie Fredrik Bergman.  Blais did say, however, that the decision wasn’t to do with Faulkner’s play.

It was much more a move to try and light a fire under Blais’ team, which he felt played somewhat below its standard on Saturday.

“We were a little flat,” Blais said after the series finale.  “Denver forced us to turn the puck over, and we didn’t have a lot of bounces, and we didn’t have a lot of second opportunities, either.

“I didn’t think we had the energy that we had last night, but Denver had a lot to do with it.  They didn’t give us a lot of second opportunities in front of the net, and Sam Brittain made saves when he had to. ”

The DU netminder and his defense in front of him had to overcome a scare from UNO late on.

The Mavericks tried, but ultimately failed, to hold onto their second-place standing in the WCHA in this, the league regular season’s penultimate weekend.

The Pioneers held on, and they were rewarded with a fourth goal with 2:10 left in the game.  It was DU forward Chris Knowlton’s fourth goal of the season from linemates Anthony Maiani and Omaha native Dustin Jackson that finally truly put the game out of UNO’s reach.

The scoresheet will show that Zucker was the night’s deserved first star, though, and he answered in the affirmative when asked afterwards whether Saturday’s game was one of DU’s biggest of the season.

“It was one of them, definitely,” Zucker said.  “They came in with a lot of intensity last night, and I knew they were going to come again tonight, and they brought it, but we were able to match that and come away with a ‘W’.

“We knew that we had to win.  It was one of the big games for us and we needed the two points.  We weren’t going to let last night stop us.”

One week’s set of games now remain before the end of the WCHA regular season.  UNO appears to have the toughest remaining slate, with a pair of games at seventh-ranked Minnesota Duluth to come while DU plays host next weekend to unranked St. Cloud State.

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  • Anonymous

    DU showed up.

    It looked like the two teams swapped uniforms from Friday night to Saturday night. These are two pretty evenly matched teams. I haven’t seen UMD yet (we’re going there next weekend) but DU, UNO and ND all look like just about interchangeable parts. On any given night…………..

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