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Having already clinched home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs with their win Friday night, the No. 2 Denver Pioneers looked to use Saturday’s game against cellar-dweller Michigan Tech to further solidify their hold on first place in the WCHA standings.
After dominating offensively for much of the game, Denver let Michigan Tech back in it late in the second, but held on for a 5-3 win. Coupled with Wisconsin’s win over St. Cloud, it moves the Pioneers into a three-point lead in the WCHA with two games in hand. With Miami’s loss, Denver may take over the top spot in the polls Monday.
“This was a tough game,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “I thought this game started out similar to last Saturday night. First period and a half, I thought we played very well, and then the one thing I said last night after the game, I really respect the Michigan Tech team for how hard they compete, no matter the situation. There are teams that would have thrown the towel in this year, but they keep competing. They respect the game, they respect the opponent, and they made the game very competitive. We find ourselves with four games to go in the best position we could find ourselves in.”
Michigan Tech got on the board first. With Matt Donovan in the box for a holding penalty, the Huskies got pressure down low, and Malcolm Gwilliam poked a rebound into the net behind Pioneers’ goaltender Marc Cheverie at 2:22.
The Huskies continued to play strong after their goal, and Cheverie made several stops. However, near the midway point, a dramatic momentum swing happened. At 7:44, Kyle Ostrow was called for goaltender interference, and Tech had a great chance to take the two-goal lead. However, Patrick Wiercioch got a clearing pass from Anthony Maiani and streaked up the left side boards, firing a shot from the left circle that hit Huskies’ goaltender Kevin Genoe and trickled through the five-hole at 8:44.
“That was big,” said Ostrow. “We were down one goal and I took the penalty and it gave them a great opportunity to go up two in the first. Patrick just made a great play going wide and snuck it in, so that was a great momentum change for us and got us back in the game in the first period.”
“It was an awful goal,” said Huskies’ coach Jamie Russell. “We got a good start where we scored a power-play goal early. We worked hard to earn a penalty and cashed in. That’s a great start on the road against a top team. We get another power-play opportunity and they come down and shoot from a bad angle and it sucked the wind right out of our sails, and Denver started coming. They’re a team that thrives on momentum, and some of our younger kids lost their composure.”
Buoyed by the goal, the Pioneers dominated the rest of the period. At 13:45, Joe Colborne cut from right to left through the crease, following the puck at the points, and deflected John Lee’s shot high glove side past Genoe.
Right after that, Donovan picked up the puck at his own goal line and rushed up ice, splitting between two Huskies’ forwards at the red line, then cutting into the left circle around a Huskies’ defenseman and going behind the net, capping the end-to-end rush with a wraparound goal at 15:33.
“I kind of picked the puck up behind the net and my first look was to give it to a forward and I didn’t see any forwards open so I just kept my feet moving, split two forwards at the red line, and made a move on the ‘D’ and saw it open around the net,” said Donovan. “Just trying to help out the team in a positive way besides getting that penalty and letting them get in the game first. It was a get back for the team.”
“That was a big time skill goal,” said Gwozdecky. “Not many guys can make that play. There’s no question that Matt, he was a very good offensive player coming into the year, and he’s been able to develop that, and has been able to improve on his defensive skills.”
That was all on the night for Genoe, who was replaced by Josh Robinson. The change did little good however, as Chris Knowlton made a great play at the right point to keep the puck in the zone, then fed a pass to Drew Shore alone in the slot. Shore shifted the puck to his backhand and beat Robinson top corner at 16:55.
Just 12 seconds into the second, fireworks erupted when Brett Olson hit Wiercioch from behind, leading to scrums after the whistle. When it settled, Olson was given a five-minute major and game misconduct, and he slammed his stick against the ice doors as he left the game. Maiani got two-minutes for unsportsmanlike.
Tyler Ruegsegger promptly hit the right post on a rush off the next whistle, while at the other end, Cheverie stoned Bennett Rover alone in the slot.
Denver was unable to capitalize on the remaining power-play time, and the second period slowed down from there. However, near the midway point, Ostrow made it 5-1 when he chipped the puck behind Huskies’ defenseman Mike Vanwagner at the blue line and skated in alone on Robinson, beating him five-hole at 11:09.
“I saw the ‘D’-man coming up hard, and Anthony gave me a nice pass and I chipped it by him hoping to use my speed to get by him and ended up getting a breakaway,” said Ostrow. “I tried to go low blocker but it went five-hole so it worked out.”
However, the Huskies immediately got one back on a lucky bounce when Evan Witt picked up the puck at the top of the left circle and fired a wrist shot that hit Donovan’s skate and bounced past Cheverie, who was moving to his left to stop the puck’s initial trajectory.
“You kind of have that thing in your mind where it’s all offense,” said Donovan. “We tried not to have the mentality, but it is kind of hard when you are leading by that much.”
With just 2.9 seconds left in the period, things got interesting when Pioneers’ defenseman Chris Nutini was called for a hooking penalty. Chris Nutini was hurt on the play, and had to be helped off the ice. Russell pulled Robinson for the ensuing faceoff at the right circle, won by Gwilliam right back to Steven Seigo, who ripped a shot past Cheverie with just .1 seconds left on the clock.
“We talked about playing strong defensively,” said Ostrow. “We were making bad plays on the offensive blue line with the puck and making bad passes to the ‘D’-man, so we knew we had to be better defensively and not take those chances.”
Controversy ensued at 6;20 of the third period when a Huskies’ rebound goal was waived off by the officials, who felt the whistle was blown before the puck crossed the line.
“We showed a lot of character getting back to a 5-4 game,” said Russell. “Yeah, 5-4 is what I said, not 5-3. We did a good job battling back.”
Right after that, Colborne hit the left post with a drive from the circle.
With time winding down, Seigo got called for interference at 16:55, and the Pioneers generated sustained pressure. Robinson robbed Knowlton on a chance from the slot with his glove as time ticked down.
“Kevin was not good,” said Russell. “He played well last night. He was not good tonight, dug us a hole, Josh came in in a tough situation and he made some big saves for us and gave us some momentum.”
After the power play expired, the Pioneers did a good job of bottling up the Tech offense, preventing any last rally.
With the way the standings are, there’s a good chance these two teams will play each other again in three weeks in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
“We respect how hard they compete,” said Gwozdecky. “It’s a great lesson for everybody. We’d be honored (to meet them in the playoffs). They never say die, and hopefully we can take a lesson from them on that. We’re in a good position right now, but there are times where things aren’t great and you have to battle through it. I think it’s a great lesson to be learned no matter what situation you are in.”