Captain Ryan Stoa notched a goal and two assists, linemate Jordan Schroeder had two goals and an assist and Jay Barriball also had a goal in a dominating effort from the No. 1 Minnesota Golden Gophers, who crushed the No. 10 Denver Pioneers 5-2 at Magness Arena.
“Denver’s had our number for the past few years, and we talked about that in the locker room this week and between periods, that they’ve had our number, and they’ve played us tough,” said Stoa.
Both teams started slowly, having trouble generating sustained pressure in the offensive zone, and shots were few and far between. Denver’s Tyler Bozak looked to have scored on the first shift for Denver, but it was ruled his snap shot hit the post.
The Gophers got on the board first at 12:26 on a singular effort by Jordan Schroeder. Schroeder picked up the puck near his blue line, eluded a Pioneer forechecker and raced up the right side boards. As he reached the top of the circle in the Pioneers’ zone, he fired a sharply angled slap shot that beat Cheverie high blocker side to the corner.
“They have great chemistry,” said Gophers’ coach Don Lucia of the Stoa-Schroeder-Barriball line. “Right from day one, they’ve been playing together. They’re the catalyst for us, whether it’s on the power play or five-on-five. They’re expected to score for us every night.”
Even while on a power play, the Pioneers had trouble generating pressure on Gophers’ goaltender Alex Kangas, who had 25 saves. The Gophers aggressively pursued the Pioneers in their defensive zone, clearing the puck and frustrating the Pioneers’ skaters, who started to make ill-advised attempts to skate around multiple Gophers’s defenders.
“There were times where we were guessing an awful lot with our puck decisions and passing, and turning it over and forcing plays that aren’t there,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “That’s a symptom of some of the issues that some of our guys are dealing with, whether it’s the mental frustration of it or what have you. No question that the guesswork is part of the problem we’re having.”
Despite an early power play in the second period, the Pioneers were still unable to get any consistent pressure on the Gophers.
At 5:46, the Gophers’ big line struck again, capitalizing on a defensive zone turnover by Patrick Mullen. Stoa grabbed the puck off the turnover and fed it across to the left side faceoff circle, where Jay Barriball pounced on it and one-timed a backhand low glove side past Cheverie.
“We’re getting a lot of bounces and we’re capitalizing,” said Stoa. “I think all three of us see the game similarly. We’re really clicking, but the biggest thing I think is we’re having so much fun.We always have a smile on our faces and things are going good in practice and going good in school, so that all helps.”
Bozak finally got the Pioneers on the board midway through the period on a goal similar to Schroeder’s in the first. Bozak raced down the right side boards and ripped a slap shot from near the right-side faceoff dot that beat Kangas blocker side.
“That was where I thought they really had a chance to put some pressure on us,” said Lucia. “We had two or three penalties we had to kill and he (Kangas) made some timely saves.”
Electrified by the goal, the Pioneers started pounding the Gophers with shots, but Kangas stood strong in net. He robbed Luke Salazar on a point blank chance from the right side crease, and several times the Pioneers had great chances where the puck bounced around just enough to keep the Pioneers’ from capitalizing.
Late in the period, the Gophers got another goal from the big line to re-establish their two-goal lead. Stoa raced down the left side and fed a perfect pass through the slot to Schroeder, who had a step on a Pioneers’ defender. Schroeder one-touched the puck past Cheverie at 18:41.
“It was huge because we were getting pinned in our zone,” said Stoa. “Denver came with a bunch of heat; they were getting pucks on net and we took advantage of that odd-man rush.”
Mike Carman made it 4-1 at 7:42 of the third period. Aaron Ness fired a shot from the left point that hit traffic in front, and Carman cut across the crease, picked up the puck and fired it on net, and it got by Cheverie.
“I think there’s no question that there were some guys who worked hard tonight and were effective, and others who were affected by their own personal individual games and the struggles they were having with their individual games, which take away from their team game,” said Gwozdecky. “I don’t think we were a difficult team to play against tonight. I thought the Gophers played well, but I don’t think you had to play great to play against us tonight, unfortunately”
The Gophers padded their lead even more while on a power play. This time it was Stoa, who got the puck off a draw Schroeder and roofed a shot top corner past Paulgaard at 12:09.
“He’s a special player,” said Lucia of Stoa. “That whole line, with Stoa coming back this year, he’s a man out there and those guys lead the way for us.”
That was all on the night for Cheverie, as Gwozdecky pulled him and replaced him with Lars Paulgaard, who saw his first action this season.
Denver got one back only 11 seconds later on a weird shot by Brian Gifford from the left side of the net near the goal line. The puck appeared to bounce in off of Kangas’ pads. The referees reviewed the goal and let it stand.
After the game, Lucia acknowledged that the Pioneers will probably be a desperate team in Saturday’s game.
“That’s our league,” said Lucia. “No matter who you play, you have to play well if you’re going to give yourself a chance to win. We just have to come out and try to play the same way we did tonight. In this league, you can play well and still not win.