Pioneers blow 3-0 lead, show little life after first period in 5-4 loss to North Dakota

Photo credit: Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald

It was about as perfect a start as the top-ranked University of Denver Pioneers could have asked for. They were skating hard, passing well, and crashing the net at every turn. As such, the Pios were dominating play at Magness Arena against the #3 North Dakota Fighting Hawks. Denver looked every bit the best team in the country and North Dakota…well they didn’t.

DU had a 2-0 lead by the end of the first period thanks to a fluky goal from freshman forward Jake Durflinger and a finesse power play goal from senior forward Jarid Lukosevicius. But the most telling statistic after the opening 20 minutes was shots on goal: Denver had 21 while North Dakota had 12. In every sense, Denver had a stranglehold on this game and it looked like they’d skate away with a surprisingly easy victory over their archrival.

North Dakota came out with a lot more jump in the second period, but Denver still had control of the game. That was evident when Logan O’Connor broke away from the Hawks’ defense on the penalty kill and beat Hawks goalie Peter Thome on a tough angle shot. All of a sudden it was 3-0 and Denver was in cruise control…which, in hindsight, was probably not the best strategy.

“It’s kind of been the story of our team so far,” Troy Terry said. “It’s something that we need to change. The ownership has to start going on the leaders of this team, myself included. We can’t start letting up once we get a lead.”

About seven minutes after O’Connor’s shorthanded goal, Zach Yon skated down the left side and sent a seemingly harmless shot at DU goaltender Tanner Jaillet’s blocker side. His blocker missed and the puck found the back of the net for the first of four straight North Dakota goals.

North Dakota skated Denver out of Magness Arena for the rest of the second period and well into the third as Joel Janatuinen, Colton Poolman, and Christian Wolanin all scored to make it 4-3 in favor of the green sweaters.

“I thought they played more responsibly and faster,” Montgomery said when asked about North Dakota’s effort in the second and third period. “They won more battles than us. That’s what turned the game. It was them being more tenacious than us.”

Denver called a timeout after Wolanin’s power play goal and it seemed to make an immediate difference for the Pioneers. DU dominated play for the middle part of the final frame and their heightened effort finally produced the equalizer on a power play wrist shot snipe off of American Hero Troy Terry’s stick. Denver had clawed their way back into the game and it at least seemed that maybe this game would go to overtime.

However, North Dakota’s Johnny Simonson had other ideas with a little over two minutes left. Defenseman Hayden Shaw gathered the puck above the left circle and sent a wrist shot towards the net. Simonson was perfectly placed and he deflected the puck past a helpless Jaillet. The roughly 2,000 North Dakota fans (maybe 200 fans of a real team) went berserk and the Fighting Hawks regained control of the game.

Montgomery pulled Jaillet with about two minutes left, but the writing was on the wall. The Pioneers were going to leave Magness Arena with a gut-wrenching loss to their archrival on Friday night.

While it’s only November and losses this time of year mean next to nothing, the Pioneers have shown a troubling penchant for blowing leads. They blew leads in their wins against Lake Superior State and Boston University and again in both losses to Western Michigan. Whether it’s a lack of dedication to the process or still early-season jitters, these blown leads are starting to become a trend.

“We have a serious lack of commitment to a team-first attitude right now,” Montgomery added. “We have lapses that are ‘oh my god’ bad. It’s happening primarily by returning players that have won championships. We’re not getting led the right way right now.”

The Pioneers have a chance to get rid of this nasty taste in their mouths tomorrow night if they can play like they did in tonight’s first period for a full 60 minutes. If they do that, they’ll skate North Dakota out of the building and out of the state. Tomorrow is a new day and a new opportunity to put a beating on a rival.