DENVER — In a game that set the stage for what might a barn-burner of first-round NCHC playoff series next weekend, the No. 7 Denver Pioneers edged the No. 15 Omaha Mavericks, 2-1 on senior night. Denver owned a substantial advantage in shots, with Omaha goaltender Kirk Thompson making 44 saves in the loss.
“It was a really special game,” said senior Quentin Shore, who scored a goal that sparked his team. “The boys were pumped up and played well for us, all four of our seniors played well. We’re playing out best hockey right now, and hopefully we can continue that in the playoffs.”
The two teams meet again in six days back at Magness Arena for a best-of-three playoff series.
“Nothing’s going to be easy against Omaha,” said Denver coach Jim Montgomery. “We know how well-coached they are, we know how hard they play, and we know it’s going to be a battle next weekend, and we’re going to expect it to go three games.”
“I thought it was a much better effort,” said Omaha assistant coach Alex Todd. “I thought the front of our net and the front of their net, we were much better.”
The first period saw a lot of sloppy play. On its power play, Denver resorted to trying for the pretty play, and often couldn’t keep the puck in the zone. Omaha on its first power play couldn’t get anything going. The latter part of the period saw a lot of jawing and after-the-whistle action between the players, as Omaha picked up the physical play. Captains Grant Arnold of Denver and Brian Cooper of Omaha each received 10-minute misconducts for an ongoing yelling match after they conferred with the referee when Omaha’s Luke Nogard got called for a cross check on Arnold.
“I thought we were playing OK; I thought we were a little sloppy compared to the way we’ve been playing, but you can’t expect to play at that level every period,” said Montgomery. I thought Quentin Shore and Evan Cowley gave us the emotion. We were lacking emotion, and the great save Evan Cowley made on that penalty kill, and then right at the end of the penalty kill, the great goal by Quentin Shore, really motivated our bench.”
After several good chances for each team early in the second, Omaha got on the board first when Fredrik Olofsson beat Tariq Hammond and Danton Heinen to a rebound in the crease and lifted it top corner glove side past Evan Cowley at 11:53.
Shortly after, Omaha went on a power play and had several great chances, including one where Austin Ortega just missed a redirection on a pass at the back door with an open net. That came back to haunt the Mavericks, as just as the penalty expired, Shore picked up a clear in the neutral zone and raced in alone on Thompson. Shore skated close in and froze Thompson with a fake shot, then took a stride to his right and slid the puck into the open net at 14:23.
“I just was lucky enough to tip it over the D’s stick and noticed the goalie was pretty far out of his crease and I deked and was lucky enough to put it in the net,” said Shore.
“Special teams at this time of year our huge,” said Todd. “We thought our power play was going really nice, we had momentum, and then we give up that goal at the end of our power play, that was tough. We didn’t feel very good at that point. If we had gone in with a 1-0 lead, that would have been great.”
Denver had a four-on-three power play in the third period, but was unable to convert. With just over six minutes left, Denver had another great chance when Gambrell stickhandled around two Omaha defenders, but his backhand attempt high was stopped by Thompson.
With Denver piling up shots and nothing to show for it, overtime was looking likely, but Denver’s Pacific Rim Line, college hockey’s hottest line in the second half of the season, came up big. At 18:26, Heinen got the puck behind the net and made a spin move to his left to get free and fed a pass to Trevor Moore in the faceoff circle. Moore sent a quick pass to Dylan Gambrell to Thompson’s right, and Gambrell redirected it into the open net.
“They seemed to be in the offensive zone the whole third period,” said Montgomery of his top line. “All our lines were playing well, and I tried to spot them when I thought it would be most advantageous for who they had on the ice. Then I just left them out their for that faceoff, and they willed that. They battled hard. Guys were grabbing their sticks, grabbing and clawing, and Heinen finally got possession behind the net, and what a great tic-tac-toe play.”
“It was a playoff-type atmosphere, and those are the games you enjoy playing in, so we are looking forward to getting them again next week,” said Shore.
“We played good hockey tonight,” said Todd. “It was a really good college hockey game, two good teams that played well. Obviously we need to be better. We have all week to work on it and we’ll be back here next week and be a bit better.”