Pioneers blow three-goal lead, split weekend series with top-ranked Bulldogs

DENVER – A night after shutting out the top-ranked Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, the #7 Denver Pioneers blew a third-period 3-0 lead to lose 4-3 in overtime at Magness Arena. Scott Perunovich scored with 1.8 seconds left to tie the game at 3 and force overtime before Cole Koepke scored 52 seconds into overtime to stun the Pioneers and complete the UMD comeback.

A night after the defense and goaltender Devin Cooley stole a 2-0 victory over the Bulldogs, Denver picked up where they left off and played two great periods of hockey. After 40 minutes of hockey, Denver had a 3-0 lead and was in complete control, well on their way to a shocking sweep. Freshmen Cole Guttman and Brett Stapley paced the Pioneers with two goals in the first period before senior defenseman Les Lancaster gave the Pioneers some real breathing room with his third goal of the season a bit more than seven minutes into the second period.

Things were going about as well as they could have for the Pioneers through five periods of hockey on the weekend. But, as can be the case for a young team, when you play the top two teams in the country in back-to-back weekends, learning moments and opporunities for growth can show themselves at the most inopportune times.

“We played a great two periods, we executed our gameplan very well; our response to a not great game last night I thought was really good,” Denver head coach David Carle said. “I think the lesson is you have to continue to pursue and attack the game.”

It might be an oversimplification to say that with a 3-0 lead, the Pioneers started to play not to lose, but the reality is, that’s exactly what Denver did. Rather than work to step on the Bulldogs’ throats and put the game out of reach early in the third period, the Pioneers retreated into a shell and played tentatively in front of Devin Cooley.

“Duluth’s a good hockey team. They continued to push and they came after us in the third,” Carle said. “We were not able to weather the storm to a good enough level and we weren’t able to punch back because we were concerned with trying not to lose.”

Sure, if you were told before the weekend that Denver would split with the Bulldogs, most Denver fans would have happily taken that result…but not like this. Blowing a three-goal lead, regardless of the caliber of the opponent hurts. This loss is going to sting for the Pioneers for a while.

“I think it’s a big learning point for our team. We’re continuing to grow,” Stapley said. “We have to learn quickly how to close out games.”

At risk of being overly redundant after last weekend, Denver has another great opportunity to grow from their mistakes tonight and learn from another great hockey team. Sure, the Pioneers are young, but that’s becoming a repetitive and quite frankly, lazy excuse and Denver knows it. They expected to win tonight and they failed to get the job done. It’s one thing to get outskated and outclassed by a better team on the road but it’s another entirely to blow a lead like this one on home ice, even against the #1 team in the country.

“We’ll take the split, we should have had a sweep,” junior assistant captain Tyson McLellan said. “I think we learned [from UMD and SCSU] how to play defensively. I think we learned how to play with a lead, how to check, how to take care of the puck. There’s a lot of things we have to get better at to be at that level at the end of the year.”

Denver won’t play two teams that are better than the two they have played in the past two weeks. After a sweep at the hands of the #2 St. Cloud State Huskies and now a split against the #1 Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, the Pioneers have finished the most difficult two-week stretch of their season. Going 1-3 with this third period collapse isn’t exactly how the Pioneers drew it up but they survived the gauntlet and have the opportunity to learn and grow, which is exactly what a team like Denver wants and needs at this point in the season.

In a season focused on growth and learning, the focus after last weekend was on staying out of the penalty box and not committing dumb mistakes, the focus after this weekend should be learning how to play with a lead and close out these types of games. For the second week in a row, Pioneers fans should be grateful that this is happening now and not in February.

These two weeks may end up being a watershed moment for the Pioneers. There have been plenty of learning moments for the Pioneers to this point but they won’t mean anything if they don’t start winning against top competition. They’ll quickly have a chance to put those lessons to the test as the Providence College Friars come to Denver next weekend. Opportunities for growth are great for a young team but at a certain point, they have to actually show that growth. Next weekend is the perfect time for the Pioneers to start showing what they’ve learned.