MINNEAPOLIS — During practice on Thursday, the Denver Pioneers thought they had found all the anomalies along the Target Center boards and were ready to defend the unexpected bounces that could result.
But that one that led to a puck caroming off the end boards, off Sam Brittain’s skate and into the net just 42 seconds into the game on Friday?
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Fortunately for the Pioneers (19-15-6), they were able to overcome all the bad bounces, putting themselves one step closer to an NCAA tournament appearance with a 4-3 victory over Western Michigan (19-15-5) in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff semifinals.
“Both teams showed a lot of fight and a lot of resiliency because there was a lot of bounces for both teams,” Montgomery said. “I think that for our group, I think it’s huge how we’ve come together here the last little while. It’s big for us as a program to make that step into that final and get that experience playing in a championship.”
Brittain’s misplay of a puck that Nolan LaPorte had cleared down the ice was just one of many setbacks for Denver. The Pioneers also had to weather a goal in the second period after a puck in the crease slipped away from Joey LaLeggia on a Will Kessel rush and found its way behind Brittain, who finished with 24 saves.
All night, pucks took funny hops off the boards and the ice was questionable at times.
But despite all the evidence that Friday was not Denver’s day, a late goal by Ty Loney allowed the Pioneers to escape with a win.
“I’m sure [not being our day] went through the minds of some of the guys on the team,” said LaLeggia. “But we do a very good job of keeping a positive bench and we have a great group of resilient guys. It was really great for us to come back like that.”
Denver recovered from Brittain’s miscue, potting a pair of goals in the first period despite finishing the first down 10-6 in the shot count.
Daniel Doremus slapped home a rebound goal in front of Frank Slubowski (19 saves) at 8:34. Then Grant Arnold picked up his own rebound goal at 13:30 after Trevor Moore’s brilliant toe drag set up the play.
The Broncos had the ice tilted their way for a good part of the second period, and they had the goals to show for it. Justin Kovacs sprung Shane Berschbach for a breakaway goal at 6:11.
Then at 18:06, Kessel’s rush from the left led to a goal after the puck tapped off LaLeggia’s skate and into the net.
LaLeggia then redeemed himself with a seeing-eye goal from the point to make it 3-3 with 3.4 seconds left in the middle frame.
The stalemate continued for 15 minutes in the third. But Denver changed that when Loney picked up a loose puck at center ice, then calmly skated in and roofed one over Slubowski’s shoulder at 15:07.
“We knew heading into the third period that it was going to matter,” Kessel said. “Playing a tie game heading into the third, we would have taken that at the beginning of the game — and at the beginning of the season. We just didn’t come and finish the opportunity. We had a perfect opportunity to win.”
The Broncos will finish their season in the third place game Saturday afternoon. Now out of NCAA tournament contention, the Broncos just have one more thing available to accomplish — 20 wins.
“We came here to play on Saturday night and we didn’t do that, so I don’t like it at all,” Broncos coach Andy Murray said of playing in an otherwise fruitless game for his squad. “But I’d like to see these guys get a 20-win season.”