It looked like the same old story for Denver, in more ways than one.
Riding a three-year streak of opening-game losses in the NCAA tournament, the Pioneers found themselves down 2-0 to Western Michigan with just under five minutes to play.
But Denver tied the game and found itself in overtime. And then double overtime, for the second straight game. Just one week ago, the Pioneers went to a second extra session against North Dakota, with the Fighting Sioux getting the win.
History, both recent and longstanding, wasn’t in DU’s favor.
This time around though, Jason Zucker scored 11:14 into the second overtime, giving Denver a 3-2 win over Western Michigan and sending the Pioneers to the regional final against — again — North Dakota.
“For those who were ready to write us off, you should know better,” DU coach George Gwozdecky said. “This team has shown, I hate to use the word resiliency, because it’s such an overused term in sport. But certainly this team has shown throughout the year, our third period is by far our best period of games.”
And while the second overtime maybe wasn’t Denver’s best period — the Pioneers were outshot 7-4 in that frame — it didn’t matter.
Luke Salazar and Drew Shore started a rush into the WMU zone, with Zucker trailing behind. Salazar dropped the puck to Zucker, whose initial shot was blocked by the defense. The freshman got a second chance on the rebound and put it into the open net from the left circle, as WMU goaltender Jerry Kuhn wasn’t able to slide back over.
“I was just going down the ice, Drew Shore drove the net, I think that pulled the two D-men in with him,” Zucker said of the play. “Luke Salazar made a great play there and I was just able to put the puck on net and it happened to go in for me.”
Zucker keyed Denver’s comeback goals in the third period as well, collecting the first assist on both DU’s first and second tallies.
With the Broncos seemingly content to sit with a two-goal lead, DU doubled WMU in shots on goal in the third period, 14-7. But until about five minutes left in the game, the Pioneers were having trouble generating any consistent offense.
Then came the penalty.
With 4:54 to play, WMU’s Kyle O’Kane hooked Chris Knowlton, giving DU a power play. Twenty-five seconds later, Zucker fired a puck in from the corner that Kyle Ostrow deflected past Kuhn to cut the lead to 2-1.
Then, with 2:36 left in regulation, Shore won a faceoff to Kuhn’s left and Zucker dropped the puck to defenseman Matt Donovan, whose shot tied the game at 2.
It was elation for the Pioneers and disappointment for the Broncos.
“It was obviously nice having a two-goal cushion going into the third, but we’ve been in that spot so many times this year and we know really, anything’s possible,” Western Michigan center Max Campbell said. “Especially when you play a high-talented team like Denver.”
Western Michigan matched Denver’s speed and intensity early. Fittingly, after two periods, the shots on goal were even at 16 apiece. The difference was, the Broncos had the goal.
Misplays by DU goaltender Sam Brittain allowed Derek Roehl to give WMU a 1-0 lead in the second period and later, allowed Trevor Elias to make it a 2-0 game early in the third.
But as it’s been all season, Denver came on strong in the third — the Pioneers outscored opponents 64-28 in the final period over the year. But in overtime, the momentum shifted back toward the middle.
“It was obviously an unreal battle out there. Guys were giving everything they had,” WMU coach Jeff Blashill said. “We had guys on our bench cramping; I’m sure they did.”
Gwozdecky said that the Pioneers played a double-overtime game last week helped prepare the team for a potential repeat scenario. The training staff had the players eat between periods and change out of wet underclothes into fresh garments.
Maybe more importantly, the memories of extra time were fresh in the players’ heads.
“At that point in the game, it’s almost more of a mental game than it is a physical game,” Shore said. “The seniors had never gotten past this stage before, and I think that was in the back of everyone’s mind. I’m just happy we could get it done.”
For Western Michigan, the Broncos’ first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1996 was bittersweet. WMU was picked to finish 10th in the CCHA in preseason polls, but ended up in fourth place. The loss dropped the Broncos to 0-5 all-time in the tournament.
“I can’t even put into words how proud I am of them and the effort that they put forth,” Blashill said. “This group’s just a really amazing group that way.”
Denver advances to a regional final after suffering opening-game defeats to Rochester Institute of Technology, Miami and Wisconsin in its past three NCAA tournaments. In store is a rematch with the Fighting Sioux, who handled Rensselaer 6-0 earlier in the day. Last weekend, UND earned a 3-2 double-overtime win over DU in the WCHA Final Five championship.
“Well, certainly, we’ve played them three times this year, so we definitely know their tendencies and stuff,” Shore said. “But in terms of preparing, we just prepare for them like we prepared for all the other 40 games we’ve played this year. Certainly, this one lasted a little longer than we would have liked, but I think everyone’s just got to recover and come to the rink ready to play.”
Video: Denver coach George Gwozdecky:
Video: Denver’s Jason Zucker and Kyle Ostrow:
Video: Western Michigan coach Jeff Blashill:
Video: Western Michigan’s Ian Slater: