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.

4 thoughts on “Pioneers blow three-goal lead, split weekend series with top-ranked Bulldogs”

  1. Damn, frustrating loss last night. I’m glad DU managed a split, but to think they had a sweep squarely in sight, only to see it snatched away late…..that was really tough. The ol prevent defense reared its ugly head.

    Have to give a lot of credit to Duluth, though. Unlike Friday night, they found a way to finish on their scoring chances in the 3rd period last night. They imposed their will, and skill, and DU just couldn’t close the floodgates. Duluth is the real deal–those guys are really good. They skate well, move the puck, possess the puck, have depth, and have a lot more size than I was expecting. They have some big kids on that team.

    After 10 games, DU is 6-3-1. Some bright spots, some growing pains, but overall, a solid start.

  2. After the disappointing 3rd period last night, I realized that this team is still very good and growing. The fact that they figure out a way to stay in games and fight is impressive. They will keep getting better and Carle seems to be a very good fit for a young team. And, I really like their skating style, speed and puck handling. This was to be expected this season but their play has raised our expectations. And North Dakota is 5-51 hahahahahahaha

  3. The optimist will say that DU just split with the top ranked team in the country and took said top team to overtime on the second night and that the Pioneers are developing into an elite team at a faster pace than most people thought they would. The top line, with two rookies on it is, as good as anyone’s top line, the goaltending has been surprisingly adequate with a walk-on in the net, and the defense is mobile.

    The pessimist will say DU has been badly outshot, out-skated and out-played for all but a period or two in the last four games against the two top teams in the country, and has been also gagging up significant leads when those top teams get to crunch time.

    The weird thing about all of this stuff is that it’s all true. Which means the real truth is something of an optical illusion in how you see these young Pioneers developing.

    My take is somewhere near the pessimistic end of the spectrum – I think what we have is a very young and talented DU team that isn’t yet ready for elite status this year, although they are a respectable team that is trying to get better. I figured they would be a .500 team this year, and that’s still a real possibility. The gagging up of two and three goal leads is something elite teams don’t do, the defense has some real net-front problems and the PK is below average.

    Can they get to elite status by year end? Possibly. We saw some flashes these past four games. But right now, the Pios are just another decent team. We’ll see if they can grow into a tourney-worthy group.

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