Alex Leclerc, Tigers spoil Pioneers’ Senior Night, delay Gold Pan clinching by a night

DENVER – For just the second time since 2014, the #6 Denver Pioneers find themselves on the wrong end of a regular season game against archrival Colorado College. In Denver’s Senior Night, the final home regular season game of the 2018-19 season at Magness Arena, two first period goals from Mason Bergh and Trey Bradley and yet another stellar performance between the pipes by CC goalie Alex Leclerc were enough to sink the Pioneers and delay any clinching of the Gold Pan by one night with a 2-1 road victory.

It was a tale of two halves for the Pioneers on Friday night. Throughout the first half of the game, Denver was caught chasing the Tigers and couldn’t sustain any puck possession. CC took advantage of a lack of intensity and will early as Bergh struck just a minute and a half into the game and Bradley followed up with his tally with just a minute and a half left in the period. Denver couldn’t mount any pressure in the offensive zone in the first period and much of the second.

“I thought they were real opportunistic,” DU head coach said of CC’s hot start. “But I thought we gave them a lot of easy offense. There were other chances that they had that they didn’t capitalize that just can’t happen in the first period of a big hockey game.”

However, in the second period, thanks in large part to an early holding penalty by Zach Berzolla, the Pioneers were able to grab some of the momentum and turn the tables on the Tigers. Finally, just past halfway through the middle frame, after a shot from above the left circle by Slava Demin found its way to Leclerc’s glove side, senior captain Colin Staub shot the puck past the unaware CC goaltender to halve the Pios’ deficit.

All of a sudden, the Pioneers were back in business and yet another comeback seemed possible, likely even. From that point on, the Pioneers played with the intensity and desperation that was clearly missing from the first half of the game. Denver mounted great shift after great shift and peppered Leclerc and the Tigers with shot attempt after shot attempt.

The Tigers’ defensive effort culminated with a save of the year candidate with more than 13 minutes left in the game as the Pioneers had beaten CC’s defense and Jaakko Heikkinen found Ryan Barrow on Leclerc’s backdoor. Rather than finding twine in a wide open net, Barrow found Leclerc’s sprawling left pad. Still 2-1.

“Really good goaltender in tight,” Carle said of Leclerc. “He’s really athletic. He sees all the ice well and also has really good hands. I thought he was great all night long and unfortunately, we weren’t able to break through.”

Denver kept pushing and generating great looks but they couldn’t solve the brick wall named Leclerc. DU did appear to tie the game with just over 12 minutes left but it was correctly determined that the puck was played with a high stick and the goal was disallowed. While Leclerc will rightfully garner all of the praise on CC’s side tonight, on Denver’s end, this game was a continuation of themes that have been all too present throughout much of the year. Special teams struggled, five on five play was inconsistent, and overall, they couldn’t sustain for a full 60 minutes the kind of intensity needed to win important games at this stage of the season. The latter is especially indicative of a team that has mounted as many comeback and late wins and ties as Denver has.

“We talked [before the game] about playing with urgency for a full 60 minutes,” Carle said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do that tonight. I liked our push back in the second, particularly the last 10 [minutes] of the second. I thought we possessed the puck a lot, we were on top of people a lot, I would like to see us get a few more pucks to the net like we did on the Staub goal.”

At times tonight, the Pioneers showed flashes of what has allowed them to play well enough to be #6 in the Pairwise. In those moments, Denver had CC on their heels and if not for Leclerc could have left for Colorado Springs tomorrow evening with a record fifth straight Gold Pan in their back pockets. Unfortunately, it was those other moments, the moments with scant necessary playoff energy, the moments that exposed Denver’s lack of a top scoring line that can take over games, that spoiled the Pioneers’ Senior Night.

But, for all that doom and gloom, there is a silver lining. How, you may ask, in the world is there a silver lining to losing to CC? Well, for starters, the season isn’t over. There’s still one more game in Colorado Springs tomorrow night before the NCHC Tournament starts. There is still one more chance for the Pioneers to clinch that fifth-straight Gold Pan. Denver still has one more game to clinch third place in the NCHC and at least two more games against the hated Tigers. Yes, there’s still one. More. Game. And everything is on the line.

All Denver has to do is find and bottle up the effort from their 1-0 victory a week and a half ago in Colorado Springs and the second half of tonight’s game and they’ll skate CC out of their own building and clinch a playoff rematch with the Tigers back in Denver. Easy enough, right?