DENVER — After Friday’s loss to North Dakota, Denver coach George Gwozdecky stated his team had gotten outworked in every area. The No. 9 Pioneers were determined to come out better, and put in a much more solid effort in defeating No. 14 North Dakota, 5-3, before 6,166 fans at Magness Arena.
“It was an embarrassing effort last night, an embarrassing performance, and I don’t think the score indicated at all how poorly we played,” said Gwozdecky. “Certainly that locker room, from last night to the start of the game tonight, was quiet, it was sour. I don’t want to say angry, but maybe as close to anger as you can about how we played. Certainly I thought we responded in a good way.”
Even with the stronger effort in the first period, the Pioneers put themselves in a potentially dangerous position at 12:55 when Matt Tabrum got a five-minute major and game misconduct for checking-from-behind. On the ensuing penalty kill, Denver used aggressive forechecking to keep North Dakota from setting up for any length of time in the offensive zone, killing off the entire penalty.
“We made an adjustment on our power play, we made an adjustment on our penalty kill, because they had an easier time retrieving pucks in our zone when they were on their breakout coming through the neutral zone,” said Gwozdecky. “We had to do a better job adapting, and part of it I think is we played with a much better edge.”
Denver’s aggressive play to start the second period, including a series of big hits, finally paid dividends when the Sioux took consecutive minors. Though Denver’s first goal wasn’t technically on a power play, it did come as the second minor ended when Drew Shore dished the puck to Nick Shore, who was stationed deep down the left side, almost along the goal line. Nick Shore lifted a quick wrist shot that beat Brad Eidsness short side at 9:23.
That was only the start of a wild series of goals in the period. At 12:24, North Dakota’s Mark MacMillan forced a turnover along the left side boards and dished the puck to Carter Rowney at the far post, who tapped it in on a play that was eerily similar to North Dakota’s first goal on Friday night.
Buoyed by the goal, North Dakota pressed, forcing Juho Olkinuora to make several tough saves, and drawing a penalty on Scott Mayfield for cross-checking in front of his own net. However, Chris Knowlton intercepted an errant pass on the power play by Nick Mattson at the left point and raced up ice, splitting the Sioux defense and firing a rocket top corner glove side at 13:34 for an unassisted short-handed goal.
“I just got my stick on their pass across, and it was apparent they weren’t going to catch me, and I was fortunate to get a good shot off,” said Knowlton. “It was a huge win. We came out and set the tone early and got the two points, and that’s what we needed. We needed to work harder. Last night, we just didn’t bring the effort. We had the same game plan, we just executed it better.”
After Mayfield’s penalty, Denver got its own power-play, and made the Sioux pay with some pretty tic-tac-toe passing in the offensive zone that ended when Drew Shore got the puck in the left slot and backhanded a pass across to Jason Zucker on the right side, who one-timed it into the open net at 15:30.
Right off the draw, while the announcer was on the PA, Dillon Simpson carried the puck across the Denver blue line and passed it to Brock Nelson in the left circle, who quickly fired a wrist shot that beat Olkinuora top corner glove side at 15:37.
Denver regrouped however, and on another power play, Scott Mayfield got the puck in the right circle on a pass from Nick Shore and fired it top corner stick side. While he was celebrating, Joey LaLeggia approached him at the boards, only to run into Ben Blood, who pushed LaLeggia. LaLeggia responded, getting his arms up. Blood got a two minute minor for roughing, while LaLeggia was assessed a five minute major for head butting and a game misconduct.
“The referee informed me that he saw Joe LaLeggia, he had caught Ben Blood, the North Dakota player, with the first initial, I think it’s an elbowing penalty he gave him, and then he said he saw Joe LaLeggia jump in the air and head butt Ben Blood in the face,” said Gwozdecky. “Obviously when you watch the replay, it’s pretty apparent that none of that occurred.”
“It was a little bit of a scuffle, a couple punches thrown by myself,” said LaLeggia. “It’s the ref’s call, and I can’t say I agree with it, but that’s hockey, and we got the win, and that’s all that matters.”
With three minutes of power play time to start the third period, North Dakota’s potent power play was again shut down by an aggressive Denver kill. Denver played tight defense the rest of the third period, keeping North Dakota from generating too many chances.
“Theirs (special teams) was the difference in the game,” said North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol. “We each scored a short-handed goal. There’s was a little more prominent than ours because of the timing. I think they ended up with three power-play goals, and we couldn’t cash in.”
Both teams continued to fight to get under the other’s skin. North Dakota’s Michael Parks was assessed a five-minute major and game misconduct for contact to the head, the fourth game misconduct of the series. Denver made the most of its power play, as Knowlton fired a shot from the right circle that beat Eidsness low at 17:35.
North Dakota did get one back when Mayfield stumbled near the red line, allowing Danny Kristo and Nelson to break in two-on-one. Kristo fed a perfect pass to Nelson in the slot, and Nelson one-timed it past a helpless Olkinuora at 18:43. North Dakota called time out and then pulled its goalie, but was unable to get any closer.
“Everything’s in our hands,” said Hakstol. “We gained some points on the team that’s closest to us. We hold our fate in our hands. We go home next weekend. We came in and got a split on the road. We battled really hard.”
“Certainly when you get two teams like this together, there’s that extra spark,” said Gwozdecky. “There’s that extra emotion involved in playing in games with these guys, I think partially because we have played in so many big big games with them. There’s certainly some bad blood, but I think that’s what makes good rivalries, and this is certainly one of them.”