ST. PAUL, Minn. — St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko warned Saturday that Bob Daniels’ Ferris State team was going to be a tough out in the tournament.
Denver outshot the Bulldogs in every period Sunday, but it wasn’t until five minutes remaining that the result became clear in the Pioneers’ 6-3 West Regional final victory over Ferris State at Xcel Energy Center.
NCAA West Regional
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The Pacific Rim line of Danton Heinen, Dylan Gambrell, and Trevor Moore combined for the Pioneers first three goals as Denver advanced to its first Frozen Four since 2005, when it won the second of two straight national championships.
The trio has tallied 48 goals on the season and flashed their skill throughout the weekend.
“They move off the puck so well, and they’re always penetrating,” said Denver coach Jim Montgomery. “It just creates two-on-ones all over the ice. It’s what good hockey players do. I hope they get to 65 [goals].”
The first three Pioneers goals were sparked in transition by a mobile defensive corps hitting forwards with speed in the neutral zone. Elk River, Minn., freshman Blake Hillman led his position group in scoring with one goal and two assists and was named the regional’s most outstanding player.
“We knew they were going to try to clog it up, and they’re kind of a trap team,” said Hillman. “So that was our job to have our wingers and forwards come back and swing low for us defensemen so we could hit ’em with speed so we could attack their two D and their center that stayed back.”
The Pioneers defensemen didn’t just get their team in transition but got involved in the offensive zone as well. Hillman scored the game-winning goal at 15:28 of the third period by stepping in from the point and roofing a shot over a laid-out shot blocker for his third goal of the season.
Then Nolan Zajac skated around a shot blocker and scored his third of the season to give Denver a two-goal lead just 25 seconds later.
“Their defensemen deserve a lot of credit, there’s real mobility back there,” said Daniels. “And to go with that mobility there’s some offensive flair to their game. They’re very good at joining the line rush, breaking their team out.”
The Pioneers advance to play the 8:30 p.m. EDT game on April 7 against NCHC rival North Dakota at the Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla. The Fighting Hawks swept Denver at Ralph Engelstad Arena 5-1 and 4-0, while the Pioneers swept North Dakota at Magness Arena 6-4 and 4-1. The teams tied 1-1 at Target Center in the third-place game of NCHC Frozen Faceoff.
“I think in the second half we’ve really preached just focusing on ourselves and not our opponent,” said Denver’s Quentin Shore. “I’m sure that’s what we’re going to do going into playing North Dakota.”
The Frozen Four berth is the 14th in the program’s history and its first since 2005 when they won the championship with a 4-1 win over North Dakota.
Montgomery said leading up to the final that his team could play the regional final in Siberia and his team would be energized for the game. Their self-starting ability was tested Sunday as an announced crowd of 2,799 and actual crowd of probably 1,000 fans watched Denver get off to a fast start, outshooting Ferris State 10-0 in the opening 10 minutes.
The opening goal came on the power play as Hillman hit Gambrell at full speed through the neutral zone, allowing the freshman to split the defensemen and get off a clean shot. Ferris State goalie Darren Smith made the save, but a rebound spilled out to the NCHC forward of the year Heinen, who one-touched it into a wide-open net for his 20th of the season at 5:34.
The Bulldogs responded by winning a defensive-zone draw, hitting a forward flying the zone and Gerald Mayhew converting a breakaway chance to tie the game 1-1 with his 16th goal of the season at 15:13.
Denver regained the lead as Heinen won a draw clean to Gambrell stepping in from his off wing, and Gambrell fired a wrist shot for his 17th goal of the season at 18:40.
Ferris State tied the game 2-2 in the last minute of the first period on the power play. Corey Mackin stepped out from below the goal line and threw the puck across the top of the crease. The puck deflected off the stick of Denver’s Tariq Hammond and into the net for Mackin’s 10th goal of the season.
Trevor Moore got the Pioneers’ third goal of the game and his 11th of the season when he converted a breakaway chance 2:49 into the second period. Hillman got his second assist of the game with a tape-to-tape pass springing Moore free to make it 3-2.
Ferris State got a power play midway through the third period and Kyle Schempp popped out from the goal line into an open space in the slot. Schempp took the pass from Mackin and buried it over the blocker of Tanner Jaillet to tie the game 3-3 at 7:17.
Denver pulled away with two goals from its defensemen in the third period and then added a sixth when Shore put back a rebound chance for his 15th goal of the season.
“This is the first time we’ve played an opposing team … that posed significant problems because of the way that they play in the d-zone, the way they break out and what they do in the offensive zone,” Montgomery said. “You can tell we are really dialed in because I thought we executed against all three of those things.”