It was a rough return from Kalamazoo, Michigan where the Western Michigan Broncos not only halted the No.7-ranked University of Denver Pioneers eight-game unbeaten streak but completed the weekend sweep. The Pioneers had been trending in the right direction and were determined to maintain their progress despite their hiccup against the Broncos.
Fortunately, the next series wouldn’t be a hard one to get up for as Denver (15-6-3, 7-6-1-1) hosted the North Dakota Fighting Hawks (13-12-1, 7-8-0-0).
Friday night was a physical and gritty effort, but the Pioneers held off a late surge from the Fighting Hawks to preserve their victory in a 2-1 fashion. Denver goaltender, Filip Larsson, in particular, was outstanding.
“I thought he was the best player on the ice,” head coach David Carle said. “I thought he was great all night. He made the saves he was supposed to and he made saves he wasn’t supposed to. He was the first star of the game for sure.”
“I did not like our start, but I thought we regrouped and had a really nice second period We really started getting some pucks behind them and winning battles in the third. I liked our composure down the stretch.”
Larsson, like his teammates, returned to Magness in hopes of leaving his struggles back in Kalamazoo. The freshman netminder looked sharp, he saw the puck well and rebuffed efforts from a feisty North Dakota offense. Larsson denied 45 shots during the chippy contest.
“I had a tough game last weekend,” Larsson said. “I got pulled and let in five goals. I just felt like I wanted to bounce back from that. I think I did pretty well from that.”
The Fighting Hawks rattled off a 19-6 shot on goal advantage in the first period, but Denver took a one-goal lead scored by Jake Durflinger midway through the period. Durflinger’s third of the season was set up by the newly assembled energy fourth line including linemates Jaakko Heikkinen and Tyler Ward.
The Pioneers displayed composure despite the relenting pressure from the Fighting Hawks. Midway through the second period, North Dakota forward Gavin Hain collided dangerously head-on with Larsson. Denver defenseman Erich Fear made a statement that his team would feed off of the remainder of the game, as the junior squared up with Hain. Following the scrum, two-minutes of four-versus-four hockey ensued.
It was a turning point for the Pioneers.
“I didn’t really know what happened [at the time],” Larsson said of the collision. “I think it for sure helps when you have a guy like Erich standing up for me. I think also stuff like that can wake the entire team up. It’s important for the team spirit.”
Sophomore Ryan Barrow buried the Pioneers game-winner during the final two minutes of the second period.
Denver held its own against North Dakota who surged a 15-5 shot advantage during the final 20-minutes of the game and displayed a perfect (4/4) penalty kill.
“We’ve been in hard games before.” coach Carle said. “We’ve been in emotional games. It is what it is in this league. A lot of our young players are getting baptized in this rivalry and what it’s about. It’s hard-fought games. In every inch of the ice, there’s battles. That’s how it is. It’s good hockey.”