After edging the Bemidji State Beavers, 3-2, in a game they spent most of trailing, coach George Gwozdecky admitted he was proud of the resiliciency shown by his banged-up No. 16 Denver Pioneers.
“Tonight’s game was as great a team win as we’ve had in quite a while, for sure all year long,” said Gwozdecky. “There’s no question that to see our team, we weren’t in a great situation as far as not only the score, but healthy bodies. You look at the guys we have out of the lineup, you look at the guys that were either kicked out of the game or hurt in the game, and all of a sudden on our number one power play in the third period, we have Nate Dewhurst playing the point, a fourth line center who has never played the power play before, but we really didn’t have any choice. I thought Nate did a great job. We just willed it to happen.”
Bemidji struck first on a Denver turnover. Pioneers defenseman John Lee had set up behind his own goal and started to move toward his left when Aaron McLeod aggressively forechecked. When Lee spun back toward his right, McLeod picked his pocket and skated out from behind the net, passing it to Ben Kinne in the left circle, who rocketed a shot past Pioneers netminder Juho Olkinuora at 10:50.
Denver got its chance to tie late when Beavers forward Jamie MacQueen was called for a five-minute major for a check from behind on Zac Larraza.
“They took him down to the hospital just for precautionary meaures,” said Gwozdecky of Larraza. “He’s slightly concussed. He’s being tested and checked right now.”
The Pioneers struggled early on the power play, but finally capitalized late. Right after Bemidji State netminder Dan Bakala robbed Ty Loney on a chance from the slot. Joey LaLeggia passed it to Jason Zucker deep in the right corner. Zucker fired a shallow-angle shot from the goal line that beat Bakala on the short-side high corner at 16:47.
‘I didn’t see a whole lot,” said Zucker of the shot. “I was talking to Joe before and saying that lane has been open, and I was just going to try and get it on net.”
After so much action, it seemed that the rest of the period would be uneventful, but with only 20 seconds left, Scott Mayfield was called for a five-minute major for a check-from-behind. With almost the full power-play time to start the second, Bemidji State grabbed the lead when Brady Wacker got the puck at the center of the blue line and let fly a quick wrist shot that beat Olkinuora low stick side at 2:27.
Denver struggled to regroup after the goal, while Bemidji carried much of the play for the rest of the period, outsthooting Denver 11-5 in the period.
“It was a tough loss, period,” said Beavers coach Tom Serratore. “You have the lead after two periods, and you end up killing that penalty at the start of the third for three minutes and you think you’re in good shape, and it’s a bitter pill to swallow.”
In the third period, Zucker led the Pioneers back with two brilliant plays, as he dominated much of the action. Early in the period, he skated up the right side of the boards and cut back to the middle just over the blue line. With three Beavers players converging on him, Zucker dished a behind-the-back pass to Chris Knowlton, who fired a wrist shot from the top of the right circle that beat Bakala inside the near post at 6:14. Zucker was hit hard after the pass, and looked shaken up as he skated slowly to the bench.
“He was calling for the puck,” said Zucker of Knowlton. “He did all the work there getting up with me, and it was huge for me knowing he was there without having to look. I just cut to the middle and dropped it and he did the rest. (The hit) just knocked the wind out of me; nothing huge.”
At the midway point of the period, after a Pioneers rush up ice drew a penalty, Zucker converted on the ensuing power play. LaLeggia ripped a shot on net from the left point that Bakala made the stop on, but the rebound popped into the slot. After Loney failed to convert on the shot, Zucker picked it up and and poked it through the five-hole at 11:50 for the game-winner.
“Zucker made a big-time play,” said Serratore. “He’s just a great player; he’s one of the best players in the league, and maybe the most explosive player in college hockey. You have to try to keep those guys in check, or at least only allow them one point or so. He’s a heck of a player and a big difference in the game.”
After giving up the weak second goal, Olkinuora was solid in net, finishing with 25 saves. Bakala had the identical number of saves.
“Juho’s done that all year long,” said Gwozdecky. “This was as difficult and challenging a team win as we’ve had in quite a while. I would like to be able to look back and think that if we do have the success we want to have, this could be one of the defining moments of our season.”
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