Photo credit: Isaiah J. Downing, The Gazette
After three years of one-sided dominance by the University of Denver Pioneers, the Gold Pan Rivalry, the second-longest played rivalry in college, might just be back. The top-ranked Pioneers didn’t play well at Magness Arena on Friday night, but what was nothing but a gentle Tiger kitten’s purr on the ice for three years suddenly evolved into a full-blown roar.
Denver seemed either unprepared or complacent and even though it took until the 3×3 overtime after the game was already officially a tie, it spelled doom for the Pioneers. It was an ugly game for the Pioneers, but the Tigers looked better than they had against Denver at any point in the last 14 games in the last three years.
As poorly as DU played, there were moments when the Pioneers looked every but the #1 team in the country they are. Dylan Gambrell took over the game in the second period when he tallied a goal and two assists, including one on Ian Mitchell’s first career goal. The third line of Jake Durflinger, Jaakko Heikkinen, and Liam Finlay gave the Pioneers a big emotional lift when they needed it throughout the night.
“I was really happy in a lot of instances,” DU head coach Jim Montgomery said. “I thought that was the best puck possession game we’ve had in a long time…the Gambrell line was clearly our best line.”
It just wasn’t enough.
These moments were far too few. Between those moments of crimson and gold-hewn brilliance, the Tigers imposed their will on the Pioneers and Denver just didn’t have an answer. From puck drop until the moment Christiano Versich’s shot beat DU goalie Tanner Jaillet in 3-on-3 overtime, Colorado College proved to be the better team and the team that wanted the victory more.
However, given the Tigers’ persistence, they still needed a goal from Mason Bergh with seven seconds left on the clock just to send the game to overtime. To that point in the third period, CC’s Nick Halloran and Heikkinen both scored to add extra intrigue to the final stanza of regulation hockey. Heikkinen’s go-ahead goal came with less than two and a half minutes left in regulation and it seemed like it would be enough to secure the Pioneers’ 15th straight win over the Tigers.
Bergh had other ideas, though. In the final minute of the third period with goalie Alex Leclerc on the bench for an extra skater, CC pressed hard in the offensive zone. With about 10 seconds left, there was a scramble in front of Jaillet’s crease that ended with the puck squeezing out toward the middle of the slot. Bergh spotted the puck, saw a wide open net, and didn’t miss his shot. Tie game.
“I didn’t think we had the ability to clear the puck,” Montgomery explained of the final sequence in regulation. “I didn’t think anyone on our team had an opportunity to make a play and panicked or turned it over. They just had possession.”
The Pioneers’ best chance to win the game in overtime came right at the buzzer as a Tariq Hammond slap shot beat Leclerc high. Hammond got his shot off before the buzzer, but the puck didn’t go in until after the clock was reading 0:00. The goal didn’t count.
Essentially, the rest was history. CC kept playing better hockey than DU did in the three-on-three overtime and Versich’s power play goal gave the Tigers the extra point for NCHC standings purposes.
“Give them credit. They played desperate,” Montgomery said of the Tigers’ effort. “They deserved what they got tonight. They were a harder, more committed team throughout the lineup than we were. What I’m seeing is a different Denver team. That’s what I’m concerned about. There’s not as much urgency and pride in being relentless.”
Sure, this will go down only as a tie for the Pioneers, but you can bet this one is going to sting. And it should. The 6,170 fans on hand to watch a rivalry hockey game didn’t get to see what makes Denver the team to beat in college hockey this year. Unfortunatly, what they saw was far far from that. One can only hope they can fix things quickly and rebound with an important NCHC matchup in Colorado Springs tomorrow night.