For Colorado College, it was a fitting way to celebrate Senior Night.
Joe Cullen and Noah Clarke, both playing their final regular-season home games, scored second-period goals as the Tigers blanked in-state rival Denver, 2-0, before a sellout crowd of 7,627 at the Colorado Springs World Arena on Thursday.
The loss severely hurts Denver’s chances for home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. The Pioneers, who drop to 11-10-6 in league play and 20-11-6 overall, must pick up at least one point against Colorado College on Friday and hope for outside help.
The Tigers, meanwhile, improve to 25-5-5 overall and 18-4-5 in conference action.
“It’s always nice when your seniors lead you in big games,” said Colorado College head coach Scott Owens. “Joe Cullen has been playing well all season long, and Clarke had jump all night. It’s just a nice feather in their cap.”
Looking to atone for their defensive lapses on Saturday, both teams clamped down in the first period. Neither could muster a sustained attack on either of their two power plays in the frame, as the Tigers’ Curtis McElhinney and Denver’s Adam Berkhoel stopped seven and nine shots, respectively.
Both goaltenders also benefited from friendly pipes. Seven minutes into the contest, Denver’s Kevin Doell fired a deflected shot off the crossbar, which Brett Sterling matched for the Tigers 6:30 later with a breakaway off the right post. As the stanza came to a close, Ryan Caldwell rifled a shot that McElhinney got a piece of before it hit the post and bouncing wide.
“The team played a great defensive game all-around,” said McElhinney, who finished with 16 saves. “We were making great passes off the boards, and everyone was coming back down and supporting.”
The Pioneers faced more tough luck in the second period. Midway through the frame, Denver appeared to break the scoreless tie, but a premature whistle negated the tally. Less than three minutes later, Colorado Springs, Colo., native Luke Fulghum clanked a shot from the left faceoff circle off the right pipe.
“We did get a little puck-lucky,” admitted Owens. “But our D-line played real well. We made a conscientious effort on penalty killing.”
With 5:05 to go in the second period, Cullen capitalized on a fortunate bounce to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead. Cullen found the five-hole on a backhanded breakaway attempt with Colorado College on the power play, snapping the Tigers’ longest scoreless drought of the season at 59:39, dating back to Saturday.
“I think (Denver) got confused as to who would take the puck,” said Cullen. “(Berkhoel) just opened up the five-hole, and I got lucky.”
Less than three minutes later, it was Clarke’s turn to shine on Senior Night. Junior Peter Sejna thread a pass to Clarke from along the boards, and Clarke roofed a wrister over Berkhoel’s left shoulder.
After that, Colorado College relied on its league-leading defense, which has now posted six shutouts on the season. The Tigers held Denver to season-low totals for shots in a period (two in the third stanza) and a game (16).
“To give up no goals after allowing nine our last game (against MSU-Mankato) is big,” said defenseman Mark Stuart. “We got a little lazy last Saturday, and tonight we were picking up guys at the net and our gaps were better.”
Berkhoel, meanwhile, was nearly McElhinney’s equal. He turned aside 34 shots, including 18 in the second period, to keep the Pioneers in the contest.
“We might rest one or two guys tomorrow (in the rematch at Denver), but we’re going to go up there with the same road mentality,” said Owens. “These are tough games to play for us, and tomorrow I just want to play well, whether or not we win.”