DENVER — He started his freshman season as a nonscholarship walk-on, but he has had a knack for scoring big goals. Now a senior, Luke Salazar, nicknamed the Goal Czar, scored perhaps the biggest goal of his career when his shot beat Wisconsin goalie Joel Rumpel at 1:40 of overtime to send the No. 9 Denver Pioneers to the WCHA Final Five. Salazar also got the game-winner in Saturday’s game.
“I wouldn’t say he was a walk-on in the sense of a ‘Rudy,’” said Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky. “We recruited him, we didn’t have any money for him, but we said, ‘Luke, there’s a place on our roster for you.’ Certainly he’s come a long way since those days where he was a great fit for Tyler Bozak for three months until Tyler gets hurt. Then Luke had to learn how to play the game away from the puck better, and he’s certainly done that. The last four weeks, starting with North Dakota, this is the best hockey he has played as a Pioneer without a doubt. He’s making a difference, not only on his line, but on the team.”
“We left everything out there; we have no regrets,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves. “I remember reading about Vince Lombardi in some games, he used to say, ‘We ran out of time.’ I feel like that with our season with the way our kids were playing. We ran out of games this year. We really came into our own in the second half. It’s tough; the guys are feeling it, and they’re in there, there’s tears, there’s disappointment.”
The OT started with a rush up the ice by Wisconsin, and Pioneers goalie Sam Brittain was tested by a Joseph LaBate shot. After Brittain made the save, the Pioneers rushed back the other way, and Salazar got a pass from Drew Shore and cut behind the net. As he came out toward the left corner, he spun and launched a shot on net that beat Rumpel on the ice at 1:40 of the OT.
“I just tried to drive hard and take their ‘D-man’ wide,” said Salazar. “He cut me off and I didn’t have any room to cut into the net, so I tried to wrap it real quick, tried to hug the net as tight as I could. I think I may have got lucky; I think their goalie may have kicked it in himself as he slid across.”
Both teams came out somewhat cautiously in the first period, determined not to make a costly mistake early, and neither was able to sustain consistent pressure in the offensive zone. It was the first period in all three games where one or the other team didn’t hit double digits in shots. Both goalies had a huge save, with Rumpel stopping a point-blank shot by Jason Zucker from the right side of the crease and Brittain stopping a great chance from a streaking Mark Zengerle.
Early in the second period, Wisconsin’s Brendan Woods got a five-minute major and game misconduct for hitting from behind on Paul Phillips, who lay on the ice for several minutes afterward and had to be helped to the locker room; he did not return during the game, suffering from an upper-body injury. Phillips’ status for next week is unclear.
Denver’s Scott Mayfield took a minor for tripping that negated some of the penalty, but Denver’s power play was anemic with what it did have, unable to get set up in their own zone. Instead, it was the Badgers who capitalized. Mayfield took a slap shot from the left point that Zengerle blocked. The puck caromed off Zengerle’s shin pads into neutral ice, and he picked it up and raced down the right side of the boards, letting fly with a slap shot from the right circle that beat Brittain high stick side at 6:40.
“It was a tough goal for sure, one I want back, but I think the team responded great,” said Brittain. “We kept the pressure down in their zone and responded very well after that questionable goal.”
The Pioneers dug deep and started to get a little more pressure, and it paid off when Salazar got the puck and raced down the right side boards, letting fly with a shot from the right faceoff dot. Rumpel made the save, but the rebound lay just in front of him, and Ty Loney picked it up and shoved it by Rumpel into the top corner at 11:17. The goal stood on review.
The tie didn’t last long, as Tyler Barnes picked up a loose puck behind the Pioneers’ net and shoved it out front, where Ryan Little tapped it in from the right side post at 12:32 to give the Badgers the lead, which they maintained going into the third. Denver looked flat with its play, unable to get any sustained pressure.
“We just wanted to keep what we were doing,” said Zengerle. “We were playing well. We had the lead the entire game. We wanted to keep it simple. They were doing a good job sniffing out our passes across the ice, so we wanted to keep everything north-south and off the glass and off the boards.”
Denver got a break early in the third when John Ramage was called for elbowing on a hard hit on Shawn Ostrow behind the Wisconsin net. On the ensuring power play, the Pioneers finally got untracked. Drew Shore got the puck on the left faceoff circle and slid a pass through the crease to Zucker, who one-timed it on net. The shot hit the far post, then came out and hit Rumpel as Nick Shore and a Badgers defender crashed the net. On replay, it looked like Rumpel reached behind him and accidentally knocked the puck into his own net, but Nick Shore was credited with the goal.
Though Wisconsin controlled most of the play from there out, Denver had the two best chances to break the tie before overtime. Larkin Jacobson hit the left post with a quick wrist shot from the left circle, and Zucker dropped a pass back to Nick Shore coming down the slot, who let fly a quick wrist shot that Rumpel got his left pad on.
That set the stage for the OT.
“The biggest thing for me was just to get hydrated and get some fluid in me,” said Brittain. “We were trying to stay loose and stay ready. I have to give credit to them, they played a great game, and it was a tough series.”
“We knew they were tired, we knew we were tired, and it was going to come down to whoever could finish it off,” said Salazar. “We wanted to get everything on net. It was a long weekend for both teams; we didn’t want to pass up any shots. The main game plan was to shoot everything and crash the net.”
Wisconsin, which had a tough start to its season, is now done, despite playing excellent hockey down the stretch. Denver will play Michigan Tech in the Final Five, against whom they went 0-1-1 in the regular season.
“It’s too bad we couldn’t be playing like that earlier in the year,” said Zengerle. “That’s how the hockey season is; the playoffs start in March. We had a nice run. Denver’s a good team, and we gave them everything we had. They were all close games.”
“There’s no question that Wisconsin played a terrific series,” said Gwozdecky. “They’re playing their best hockey of the year. You couldn’t have asked for a closer series. I think this kind of series, and this game probably, is symbolic of our season. Things don’t look good. The other team has a lead or whatever, but we battled back.”