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MINNEAPOLIS – In a game that had few implications for either team, No. 1 Denver defeated No. 8 Western Michigan, 3-1, in the consolation game of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at the Target Center.
With the win, Denver locked up the No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament. However, as Denver coach Jim Montgomery made clear in his decision to sit his top four scorers and starting goalie, a national championship is all that matters to the Pioneers.
“Good team win today; I think it illustrated the depth we have at Denver with the players we sat out,” said Montgomery. “I’ll beat you to the punch with why we sat those guys out: we’re here to win a national championship now. After yesterday’s loss I wasn’t risking any injury, and again I wanted players playing this game with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and I think you saw that from our group today.”
“Very proud of the guys,” said Denver assistant captain Matt VanVoorhis. “We battled hard today. Sometimes these games can be hard to get up for. It just shows the character we have in the locker room and the guys we have there to be able to get up. … There’s excitement because some guys are getting an opportunity they don’t normally get.”
Western Michigan coach Andy Murray echoed Montgomery’s comment about the enthusiasm displayed by a lot of Denver players who aren’t usually in the lineup.
“Certainly a disappointing game for our team with what was at stake for our team,” said Murray. “We knew Denver was dressing a different lineup today and the first thing we put on the board was the word ‘grit.’ They were going to play hard and compete and they have a lot of pride over there. I give them a great deal of credit, and their coaches. Their team played harder than what our team did tonight.”
After a slow start with some feeling out from both teams, Denver struck first on a power play. A shot from the point by Blake Hillman didn’t get through, and the puck came to Colin Staub at the bottom of the left circle, and he lifted a backhand past Ben Blacker at 8:33.
“Our power play was working pretty well all night and that first power play we were trying to focus on getting pucks to the net,” said Staub. “I was fortunate enough to be in a position when that puck came out to me that I could kind of get a clean shot at the net and I’m pretty happy that went in.”
Western came out with more fire in the second period, and it paid off when it tied the score at 5:29 when Mike McKee finished off a two-on-one with Aaron Hadley by tapping the puck in past an outstretched Evan Cowley.
However, just like Friday, it wasn’t long before Western gave up the lead. Just 1:08 after McKee’s goal, Liam Finlay carried the puck over the blue line and sent a wrist shot past Blacker top shelf. Blacker looked to be partially screened on the goal.
“I thought Western was starting to take over the game there and had the momentum and we were spending a lot of time in our own end,” said Montgomery. “That transition goal that Finlay scored, he was recruited to be a dynamic offensive player, someone that could take care you out of your seats. I think you saw that every time he was on the ice tonight.”
For his part, Murray acknowledged his team can’t give up goals so quickly after rallying, something that also happened Friday against Minnesota Duluth after tying it 2-2.
“Obviously we have this thing of digging in,” said Murray. “It’s trench warfare hockey. When things didn’t go right you have to dig in a little bit more. … Vince Lombardi once said there’s usually four or five key situations in a football game that decide it, and it’s the team that is accountable in that moment that is the one that ultimately wins it, and we weren’t accountable in certain situations. Can’t give up goals at the times we gave them up this weekend.”
Staub added another goal at 14:42 of the third when Jared Lukosevicius carried it deep into the right corner and then sent a pass out to Staub coming down in the left circle, and Staub rifled it home.
Backup goaltender Cowley, a senior who also played last Saturday in game two against Colorado College, finished with 28 saves in the win.
“First of all, Evan is a great goaltender,” said VanVoorhis. “A lot of teams in this country, he’d probably be the number one starter, so we’re very fortunate to have the depth we do on the back end.”
While Denver has the top seed with the win, Western’s position is unclear. The Broncos can still get a one seed if Wisconsin and Air Force win and a few other things break their way, but the Broncos aren’t worried about their seeding.
“I guess we find out tomorrow; they’ll tell us at that time where we go,” said Murray. “I’m not one to scoreboard watch. You just take care of your own business and then people tell you where you’re gonna go play and just go and play there.”