COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Order has been restored along the I-25 corridor. A year after the Colorado College Tigers upset the Denver Pioneers, going 2-1-1 in the teams’ regular-season series, the Pioneers have won it back. The #6 Pioneers (20-9-6, 10-6-5-4) won the first two games of the series against the Tigers (11-19-3, 4-16-3-1) in December and only needed a single point in the second half of the series this weekend and earned that point with a 2-2 tie. Thanks to Brett Stapley’s silky mitts in the first round of the shootout, Denver earned the extra point to stay a point ahead of Western Michigan, who beat Miami earlier in the evening.
For the first 55 minutes of the game, though, a tie seemed completely out of the question. Denver skated past CC, sustained offensive possessions, minimized CC’s scoring chances, and overall played an excellent game. The first period went by with no goals scored by either team despite the myriad chances for both. Pioneer Magnus Chrona and Tiger Ryan Ruck matched each other save for save through the first 20 minutes with some spectacular displays of athleticism. It wasn’t until halfway through the second period that DU broke through with a fluke of a goal from Ian Mitchell. Chrona made a save on a CC breakaway that ended up springing Mitchell on a two-on-one with Kohen Olischefski. Mitchell’s slot pass bounced off of the CC defender’s stick and past Ruck.
At the end of the period, with about 37 seconds left, Ruck left the game with an undisclosed injury and freshman Matt Vernon replaced him. Five seconds later, Tyler Ward doubled the Pioneers’ lead on their first shot against the new goaltender and Denver entered the locker room with a 2-0 lead with 20 minutes left.
For the first 15 minutes of the third period, it was more of the same for the Pioneers. But it was a completely different Vernon. Denver continued to dominate CC at both ends of the ice but nothing was finding twine. Pucks were either going just wide or Vernon’s complete transformation into a puck vacuum kept Denver off of the scoreboard in the final period.
Chris Wilkie – the NCHC’s leading scorer and second-leading scorer nationally – finally showed up for the Tigers with a bit more than five minutes left and it was to the detriment of the Pioneers. After Ryan Barrow took an interference penalty, CC’s power play went to work and Wilkie was the beneficiary of a rebound to Chrona’s stick side. The CC forward had a wide open net to shoot at and he didn’t miss. CC was back to within a goal thanks to Wilkie’s 22nd goal but the Tigers – and Wilkie specifically – weren’t done.
CC’s proximate goal with a bit more than 5 minutes left gave the Tigers life, something they had been sorely missing for the first 55 minutes. Denver didn’t exactly roll over but they were forced to withstand an offensive push from the Tigers that they hadn’t seen all game. Vernon came off the ice with just more than a minute left for the extra skater and Denver had an open net as a target. They missed on their few looks and Wilkie took full advantage as he wired a wrist-shot past Chrona with just 7 seconds left. The World Arena erupted and the Tigers all of a sudden had new life, attempting to hold onto the coveted Gold Pan.
Five-on-five overtime came and went and the game got weirder. DU and CC traded looks, CC appeared to have Chrona beat in sequences immediately after DU appeared to have Vernon beat. But somehow, the puck stayed out of both nets. Whether it was goaltending or divine intervention from the hockey gods will remain in debate for years to come. The overtime even saw CC pull Vernon again – yes, CC pulled Vernon in a tie game in overtime – on a penalty-kill in a last-ditch effort to keep the Gold Pan. Denver, sorely needing points to keep pace with Western Michigan and maintain its third-place position, missed the empty net multiple times. With the tie, though, Denver clinched the Pan and the Tigers hung their heads as the buzzer sounded.
Three-on-three overtime offered more of the same. Chances were plentiful but both Chrona and Vernon remained equal to the task. The Tiger’s hung heads did not affect Vernon in the slightest, though. Denver peppered him with shots but each time, he kept the puck in front of him. Finally, it was Stapley who ended the game and gave Denver the extra NCHC point in the first round of the shootout after Chrona stopped Grant Cruikshank, who went first.
It was a weird game that perfectly encapsulated an odd penultimate night in the NCHC that also saw 6th-place Omaha dispatch of #1 North Dakota 4-1. Denver will be disappointed that they let a sure road win slip away in the final five minutes but in the end, the Pioneers are traveling home with the Gold Pan and home ice clinched for the first round of the NCHC Tournament next weekend thanks to St. Cloud State’s loss to Minnesota Duluth tonight. Now, they can regroup and come back tomorrow night, on NHL-sized ice, play well, and clinch third place and a date hosting Omaha next weekend. It feels a bit milquetoast, sure, because of how it all happened in the last five minutes, but the result is still positive. And that, really, is what matters tonight.
Oh how quickly things can change
Chrona makes the save down here ➡️
⬅️ Mitchell makes a goal down here pic.twitter.com/VjinKsEJTi
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) March 7, 2020
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) March 7, 2020
Colorado College 2
David Carle postgame: https://t.co/fUvaFPoHDh
— LetsGoDU (@LetsGoDU) March 7, 2020