Photo Credit: Sasha Kandrach
On a night that saw the No. 7 University of Denver Pioneers’ seniors honored before the opening puck drop, Denver topped the No. 15 University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks 2-1. Thanks to St. Cloud State’s victory over Colorado College earlier in the evening, game two of Senior Weekend proved to be a preview for the first round of the NCHC Tournament next weekend between Denver and Omaha.
Tonight’s game started slowly for the Pioneers. The Mavericks came out more determined than they did a night ago and stopped everything DU tried to do early. Once the Pioneers gained their legs, the offensive assault began. Denver dominated the time of possession and no Pioneer hesitated to shoot the puck.
By the end of the opening period, Denver led in the shots on goal category, 16-7 and led in shot attempts 25-13. Yet thanks to a herculean effort from goaltender Kirk Thompson, the game remained scoreless.
“I thought both goalies were really good,” DU head coach Jim Montgomery said. “It’s what we’re going to see next weekend and for the rest of the year.”
In the second period, both teams picked up right where they left off in the first with fast-paced, end-to-end action. It wasn’t until the 11:53 mark of the middle frame that the score didn’t read 0-0. After a shot from the right circle was deflected in front of Denver goalie Evan Cowley, Fredrik Olofsson picked up the puck and shot it into the open net. 1-0 visitors.
2 and a half minutes later, just as Denver finished killing off a Blake Hillman holding penalty, Quentin Shore poked the puck past a pinching Maverick defensemen and broke free on a breakaway. As Shore closed in on Thompson, he faked a shot left, Thompson bit, Shore went right and tapped the puck into the open net vacated by the fooled goalie to tie the game at 1.
Over the next five minutes, Denver maintained high pressure on the Omaha defense, but Thompson came up with save after save. His effort reminded some of the effort by Notre Dame’s Cal Petersen over New Year’s weekend. Denver had chance after chance all game, but it seemed that no matter what DU tried, Thompson was always there.
“I don’t know if [Thompson] made as many saves as Petersen had to,” Montgomery said.
Despite Denver’s pressure, the second period came to an end with the teams still tied at 1. In the third period, Denver came out with a renewed purpose offensively. UNO was consistently under siege by Denver’s offense, especially when the vaunted Pacific Rim Line was on the ice.
At the 8:17 mark of the final frame, after Thompson had frozen the puck, the pressure provided by Denver’s top line reached a boiling point and UNO’s defensive captain, Brian Cooper shoved a disinterested Heinen into the boards. The players were given confusing matching slashing penalties and whatever further pressure the Pacific Rim Line could offer was abruptly prevented.
“I didn’t [get an explanation],” Montgomery said. “I kind of threw my hands up in the air by then.”
For the last ten minutes of the game, Denver continued dominating possession. There was even a period of at least 5 minutes without an Omaha shot on goal. Yet again, it was the effort of Thompson that kept the game tied at 1. Omaha played sloppily in their defensive end, and even though they continued to turn the puck over to Denver, Thompson bailed them out.
It wasn’t until there was 1:34 reading on the clock that the tie was broken by Denver. Heinen found the puck behind the Omaha net and passed it over to Moore in the right circle. Pacific Rim Line center Dylan Gambrell was camped out outside of the crease on Thompson’s back door and Moore found him with an incredible pass. All Gambrell had to do was send the puck past a scrambling Thompson and Denver had the all-important 2nd goal.
“They showed why they’re one of the top lines in the country,” Montgomery said. “You need big time players on your team to win championships. They need to make big time plays in big time moments and that was a big time play by all three.”
Omaha didn’t give up altogether. Almost immediately, UNO head coach Dean Blais pulled Thompson, but it was to no avail as Denver killed off the remaining time on the clock to clinch the hard-earned Senior Weekend sweep.
“It was what we needed,” Montgomery said. “We needed a gut check where we needed to rally and out-will a team with our brains and our execution.”
Near the end of the game, after UNO had pulled their goalie, all four seniors were on the ice together to finish the game. Montgomery explained that because it was senior night, he wanted it to be special.
“They’re the guys we rely on in those situations anyway,” he said. “I usually don’t play them together like that, but it’s senior night and hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to put them on the ice like that in Tampa too.”
To say tonight’s game was physical would be an incredible understatement. Teams were at each other’s throats from the opening faceoff it seemed like. Refs constantly had to break up post-whistle scuffles. In itself, there was nothing wrong with what happened. However, with Omaha coming back to Denver next weekend for the first round of the NCHC Tournament, there are some serious implications.
“The intensity and physicality always goes up when you’re in playoff hockey,” Montgomery said. “We’re going to be ready for it as I’m sure UNO will be.”
When teams play each other twice in a row, bad blood tends to carry over into the next weekend and things get ugly. It will be on both coaches and on referees to keep things under control next weekend and avoid injuries.
Regardless, with tonight’s victory Denver extended its winning streak to 9 and improved their record to 21-8-5 and 14-1-3 since the holiday break.
Gambrell’s goal was his 15th on the year; Moore’s assist was his 31st; The entire Pacific Rim Line was involved in Denver’s second goal; Montgomery said that Shore’s goal reminded him of a breakaway goal scored by the New York Rangers’ Derek Stepan earlier in the day; The Pioneers remain tied with Michigan for #6 in the PairWise Rankings, but they closed the gap between themselves and #5 Boston College; Denver outshot UNO 46-27; It was announced after the game that controversial referee Derek Shepherd is retiring after this year.
NCHC Tournament First Round
Friday, March 11 -Sunday, March 13 (If Necessary)
7:35 PM, 7:05 PM Fri & Sat
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