ST. PAUL, Minn. — A year from now, Jason Zucker may be playing in the Xcel Energy Center professionally for the Minnesota Wild. That’s the long-term future.
For right now: “We play tomorrow night,” Zucker said Thursday afternoon after the Wild’s second-round draft pick (2010) scored the overtime goal for Denver against Michigan Tech in the WCHA Final Five quarterfinals.
The third-seeded Pioneers won 3-2 and will face second seed Minnesota-Duluth in Friday’s semifinal game at 2 p.m. CDT.
“Joe LaLeggia made a great play coming in from the point and I just called for the puck,” Zucker said. “Joe’s a very skilled player and he put it on my stick so I was able to bury it.”
LaLeggia, a freshman, crossed the zone to the right circle, changed his direction and fired a pass through traffic that found its way to Zucker waiting all alone on the doorstep, and he buried the winner 2:18 into overtime.
Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky said Zucker didn’t have his best game after two periods, so adjustments were made.
“We had some discussions between periods to help him get better in the game,” Gwozdecky said. “He’d be the first to admit he didn’t have a great game. He played a little bit too much along the perimeter.”
Michigan Tech broke down in the defensive zone on the winner and left Zucker all alone in front of the Tech net. The focus turned to LaLeggia as he circled the zone and attracted the Huskies’ D.
“We had an opportunity to get the puck out of the zone and we didn’t,” said first-year Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson. “We started to scramble defensively and Zucker doesn’t make mistakes when he gets the puck on his stick.”
The loss ends Michigan Tech’s season with a 16-18-4 record, but that’s a far cry from where the Huskies were a year ago when they went 4-24-2 under Jamie Russell.
It also ends a 15-day road trip that included two weekends in Colorado Springs before the Huskies flew to the Twin Cities earlier this week.
“The first-round win was huge for us and we weren’t happy with the result today but I’m very proud of the way the guys played the last few weeks,” said Huskies senior Brett Olson.
Added Tech goaltender Josh Robinson: “It’s been a great time spending it with the guys. You can’t ask for much more. It’s been a memorable three weeks.”
Robinson finished with a season-high 41 saves and kept the Huskies in the game with some brilliant saves in the second period. He stopped a Zucker shot on a three-on-two rush, stacked the pads to rob Drew Shore on the doorstep and made a nice glove save on Shore later on.
After Robinson’s work was good enough to keep the score tied at a goal apiece after two periods, Ryan Furne gave the Huskies a 2-1 lead when he shelved a wrist shot over Denver goalie Juho Olkinuora’s right shoulder 18 seconds into the third period.
But with the clock ticking away on the Pioneers (24-12-4), Denver’s flair for the dramatic came through again. Luke Salazar, who scored the game-tying goal with 38 seconds left against Nebraska-Omaha in the regular season finale and the overtime winner against Wisconsin in Game 3 of the WCHA first round, struck again.
“I’ve been pretty lucky the last few games,” Salazar said.
Added Shore: “[Salazar] calls himself lucky but anyone who scores that many late goals shouldn’t be called lucky. He does it time and time again. He has great hands around the net.”
The Huskies got too deep on the rush with four attackers in close on the Denver goal and by the time Denver got the puck out of the crease after a Olkinuora save, Scott Mayfield launched a clearing attempt that turned into an outlet pass to Drew Shore at center ice. Shore brought the puck into the right circle, passed over to the slot for Ty Loney, who fed Luke Salazar on the door step for his 12th goal of the season with 4:32 left.
“We’ve been down a lot late in the third period lately,” Salazar said. “We kind of don’t want to change our game plan or anything like that, just keep going.”
Added Gwozdecky: “Certainly, I would disagree with one thing Luke Salazar said and I’d like to change the game plan a little bit and win the game earlier in the third period.”
Video: Denver’s Jason Zucker, Drew Shore and Luke Salazar
Video: Michigan Tech’s Brett Olson and Josh Robinson