DENVER — After beating Denver on Friday, Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves had stated that “getting to the third period in a zero-zero game, that’s where we wanted to be.” Wisconsin was in that position again Saturday, but Denver finally broke through, scoring two goals and adding an empty-netter to beat Wisconsin, 3-1, and force a third game in their WCHA playoff series in Denver.
“Certainly I thought the urgency and desire was there,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky. “I’m really proud of our team. The way the game was going, you mentioned we lost Drew Shore. The score was zero-zero going into the third period, kind of similar to what it was last night. I thought we stayed with our game,, stayed with our blueprint, and it was effective. It was difficult. We were kind of operating on fumes for a while, but certainly a very important win.”
The first period held plenty of drama, even if it ended scoreless. Wisconsin appeared to have gotten on the board first just as a Denver penalty ended when Frankie Simonelli let fly a wrist shot from the left point that beat Sam Brittain high glove side off the post. However, on video review, the goal was disallowed for a man in the crease.
“They said the young man was in the blue, and the goaltender didn’t have a chance to make the save,” said Eaves of the referee’s call. “They said it was a pretty easy call. Any goal you get is a big goal, so if you were looking for turning points in the course of the game, that would be one.”
Buoyed by the second chance, the Pioneers began buzzing, generating some of their most sustained pressure of the series to that point, and Joel Rumpel was called on to make several strong stops. At 13:27 however, Pioneers captain Drew Shore was called for five minutes and a game misconduct for contact to the head when he leveled Keegan Meurer in the Wisconsin zone. On the ensuing power play, Wisconsin took a minor for interference, and wasn’t able to score on the remaining three minutes of power-play time.
“Drew is obviously a huge part of this team, and he has been all year,” said Pioneers forward Jason Zucker. “We didn’t change a thing. Obviously we had to change our personnel up a little bit. We knew that the goals would come if we kept pounding them.”
The second period proved more drama-free. Denver got the only power play, and while the Pioneers moved the puck well, they were unable to solve Rumpel. Denver controlled the action at times, firing 15 shots at Rumpel. At the other end, Brittain was solid when called upon, making seven saves.
“Their goaltender played great,” said Zucker. “Even the goals that were given up, I don’t believe they were his fault. He’s played great for two straight games, and I’m sure he’ll play great tomorrow night as well.”
Denver’s continued offensive pressure finally bore fruit on a wild scramble in the fourth minute of the third period. Rumpel and several Wisconsin players dove around the crease while several Denver players whacked at the loose puck. Dustin Jackson had a shot from the slot with Rumpel down, but it was blocked by a Badgers defender. However, the puck came to Nate Dewhurst on the right side of the crease, and he lifted it past Rumpel at 4:04, ending Denver’s scoreless draught at 104:04 of play in the series.
“That flurry, that goal, that continued effort to bang it past and block and tackle in that area of the net was kind of symbolic and typical of the way we played tonight,” said Gwozdecky. “You had to be a man out there. You had to get your nose over that puck, and it’s hard work.”
“We were talking in the locker room and on the bench, ‘We just need one boys, just need one,” said Pioneers forward Luke Salazar. “Finally, Nate came up big for us and got that first one, so hopefully now we can keep it going.”
The lead didn’t last long, as a costly defensive misread left Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz coming down the slot with a wide-open shot. He got a pass from Jake McCabe and beat Brittain at 6:54.
“When we tied it up, I thought the energy level was good,” said Eaves. “It was a costly turnover that cost us the next goal.”
Denver regrouped, and started to tilt the ice toward the Wisconsin end. Zucker got into the neutral zone and got a pass from Nick Shore, then sprinted up the right side of the ice. Inside the Wisconsin end, he slipped a pass to a trailing Salazar on the left side of the slot, and Salazar one-timed a shot from the left circle that beat a sliding Rumpel at 12:53.
“I saw them turn the puck over and I just tried to get back onsides real quick,” said Salazar. “Jason got the puck there and he kind of drove wide. I was kind of expecting to stand near the net for a rebound; I didn’t expect him to get it through there. He made an unbelievable pass through I think their d-man’s legs, and I just tried to shoot it as hard as I could. We had some adversity with that penalty, the five-minute major, and we just tried to persevere.”
This time, Denver clamped down defensively, preventing Wisconsin from generating any sustained pressure, and Nick Shore added an empty-net goal at 19:04 to seal the win.
“Again, we’re in control, but all of a sudden they tie it up, and yet we fought back,” said Gwozdecky. “We didn’t let that bother us like perhaps it did last night. Certainly, it was great to see Zucker and Salazar combine for that big goal for us.”
“I’m excited for tomorrow night,” said Eaves. “I think we get to see what we’re truly made of, because tomorrow night is going to be a battle of wills, our will against theirs. We get an opportunity to find out what kind of material we have.”