Pioneers withstand third period rally, ride Broncos out of Denver with overtime sweep

Everything was going just fine for the first forty minutes. The #7 Denver Pioneers (5-0-1, 2-0-0-0 NCHC) had picked up right where they left off a night ago in game one against the Western Michigan Broncos. With a power play goal in each of the first two periods, it seemed like Denver was going to cruise to a surprisingly easy early November sweep at Magness Arena. Then the third period came and the tables quickly turned and Denver had to score with less than three minutes left to force overtime where Jarid Lukosevicius scored his fifth goal of the weekend to clinch the sweep. In a season of tests, this one was a test of mental fortitude and leadership and, to no surprise, the Pioneers passed.

Over the course of the first half of the third period, Josh Passolt, Mattias Samuelsson, and Paul Washe each scored about three minutes apart to come back and take the lead. For Denver’s part, it wasn’t as if they receded into a defensive shell and allowed Western to take control of the game. It was a series of offensive and defensive breakdowns and bad bounces symbolic of a young team that allowed the Broncos to come back and take the lead.

Denver has a strong leadership core led by senior captain Colin Staub and assistant captain Jarid Lukosevicius so the game was far from over with more than 10 minutes left on the clock. Lukosevicius started Denver’s surprising comeback with about three minutes left in the third period as he blocked a wide-open shot attempt with Devin Cooley out of position. That effort alone would have been enough to get the momentum back onto Denver’s side but he got back onto his skates and drew a tripping penalty to earn the Pioneers a power play.

“It was a great individual effort,” DU head coach David Carle said. “We didn’t get down, we stayed positive, we were cheering each other on, and you need a guy to make a play and ultimately we did. We get the power play and execute. It was great to see the resiliency of our group for the second time in a come-from-behind win this season.”

On the ensuing faceoff, freshman Emilio Pettersen buried a shot from just inside the left circle to tie the game. His goal was huge. His celly was huger. All of a sudden what seemed to be a lost cause to everyone not on Denver’s bench looked doable once again. Overtime came and the Pioneers had all of the momentum once again. Of course, Lukosevicius scored to end a dominant shift and the Pioneers celebrated a victory that showcased the team’s mental makeup and leadership.

“He’s just such a great goal-scorer,” Ian Mitchell said of Lukosevicius. “He gets the puck on his stick anywhere near the net, you know it’s going in. That’s big for us having that one-shot shooter type guy on our team. This year he’s being a leader too, being an assistant captain. He’s taken another step off the ice just talking to the guys, being a real role model for the younger guys.”

It’s well-documented that the Pioneers have a young team. The focus has been on the fact that in any given game, the Pioneers dress anywhere from five to ten freshmen and NCHC newcomers. But there has been much less made of the fact that this team continues to boast some of the best on-ice leadership you’ll find in the country.

Lukosevicius scored five goals on the weekend but it will be his play late in the third period that saved the game and drew the game-winning penalty that everyone will remember. Ian Mitchell notched four assists against the Broncos but it will be his diving play in his own end to break up a 2-on-1 chance that will be talked about. The Western Michigan Broncos came back to take a late third period lead in Denver but the Pioneers followed their leaders and pulled out a big win and early season sweep.

“They didn’t go away,” Carle said when asked about his comment that he expected a more intense WMU team. “And they never do. We had two three-goal leads in their building last year and they came back and beat us both times. A lot of people in the locker room were in those games and they know how hard Western plays and that they do never go away.

The road only gets tougher from here with St. Cloud State and defending national champion Minnesota Duluth on the schedule over the next two weeks. But don’t you dare write those games off as losses. With this team’s leadership core, no win is impossible, no goal is insurmountable. Yeah, this team is young. It’s just that they don’t care what that means to you.