GREEN BAY, Wis. — In the opening game of the Midwest Regional, No. 2 seed Ferris State held on to beat No. 3 seed Denver 2-1 behind a strong effort in goal from senior Taylor Nelson to move within one game of the program’s first Frozen Four berth.
The Bulldogs scored early goals in the second and third periods to stake themselves to a 2-0 lead and used their defense to close out the game and stave off a hard-charging DU comeback effort.
Friday’s matchup marked only the second ever meeting between Ferris State (23-11-5) and Denver (25-13-4) and that unfamiliarity was evident as the Bulldogs and Pioneers traded scoring chances in a back-and-forth scoreless first period.
Ferris State senior forward Jordie Johnston broke the deadlock four and a half minutes into the second period, tipping in a centering pass in the goal mouth from sophomore forward Garrett Thompson.
Denver thought it had tied the game later in the period after the puck slipped under Nelson after the Pioneers crashed the net, but the refs waived the goal off and that call was confirmed via replay as the officials determined the whistle had blown before the puck crossed the goal line.
“Luck plays a part in this tournament as far as bounces are concerned, as far as calls are concerned,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “The guys coming back to the bench, while they were reviewing the non-goal, were pretty confident it was going to be called a goal.”
After the disallowed goal, the Pioneers’ offense turned up the heat on Nelson. Denver cycled the puck effectively in the offensive zone all night, creating numerous scoring opportunities, but couldn’t find the back of the net.
“Unfortunately for us, either we misfired on a number of occasions or their goaltender made some terrific saves,” Gwozdecky said. “I thought they played well in front of [Nelson] defensively. They blocked a lot of shots.”
“Their goaltender played an outstanding night tonight,” added Denver sophomore forward Jason Zucker. “I think, myself included, had a ton of offensive chances and just couldn’t put them in.”
In the face of the Pioneers’ heavy pressure, Ferris State extended their lead to two with a goal from an unexpected source.
Just under three minutes into the third period, junior forward Eric Alexander brought the puck to the left hash and found trailing freshman defenseman Simon Denis with a pass and Denis ripped it past Denver sophomore goaltender Sam Brittain for Denis’ first goal of the season and his career.
In the postseason, big goals have a way of coming from unlikely heroes, as Denis’ goal would eventually stand up as the game winner.
“It is hard to believe that when you get to this stage in the NCAAs [who can come up with a big goal],” Ferris State coach Bob Daniels said. “If anything, it’s been surprising he hasn’t scored earlier. I think as time starts to march forward, Simon will end up on the score sheet quite a bit.”
Down two goals in the third period, Denver continued its offensive assault on the Ferris State goal, eventually breaking through just over five minutes into the period to draw within one. On the play, the puck found DU junior forward Drew Shore alone in front of the net. Shore made a nifty move onto his backhand and put it past Nelson on his blocker side.
“Drew has been an offensive catalyst for us all year,” Zucker said. “That was something big for us.”
After Shore’s goal, the Bulldogs’ defense had to withstand a furious Denver comeback effort as the Pioneer offensive pressure showed no signs of relenting. Still down a goal with under two minutes left in the game, Denver pulled Brittain and pushed hard for the tying goal.
Ferris State’s defense, which ranked tenth in the nation this season, stood tall, though, and held off the Pioneers’ attack to advance to Saturday night’s regional final.
In the third period, Denver attempted 17 shots, but only eight of them made it on goal.
“We have done a great job all season long of getting in shot lines,” Nelson said. “Every guy on the team is willing to put their body on the line and sacrifice.”
Nelson, who had a standout regular season with a 2.14 goals against average and a .922 save percentage, made 25 saves in the win and Daniels believed that his performance against the Pioneers ranks among the goaltender’s best to date.
“I would place tonight right near the top,” Daniels said of Nelson’s performance. “Taylor did a terrific job of not only making the first save, but eliminating too many rebound opportunities. I would rank that as good as a performance as he’s had all year.”
The Bulldogs move on to face the winner of Friday’s regional semifinal between top-seeded Michigan and fourth-seeded Cornell.
Video: Ferris State coach Bob Daniels:
Video: Ferris State’s Taylor Nelson, Chad Billins and Jordie Johnston:
Video: Denver’s Jason Zucker and Drew Shore:
Video: Denver coach George Gwozdecky: