Disastrous first periods often lead to bad losses. For most teams, giving up three goals in the first 18 minutes of games almost never leads to victories. For most teams. The #3 Denver Pioneers (19-5-1, 12-3-0-1 NCHC, 35 pts) are not most teams. These Pioneers are, to borrow a Gen-Z internet phrase, built different. The #7 St. Cloud State Huskies (14-8-1, 6-6-1-1-1 NCHC, 19 pts) shot out to a 3-0 lead at Magness Arena in the first period thanks in large part to some lucky bounces and an at-times lackadaisical DU defense but for the Pioneers who lead the country in scoring, 3-0 was far from an insurmountable lead. All they had to do to right the ship was score 8 goals over the final 40 minutes, including four – three from Carter Savoie himself – in the second period to erase the three-goal deficit and four more in the third to come away with their sixth-straight victory and remain unbeaten at home.
This game, which was fortuitously televised nationally on CBS Sports Network, featured two of the top three offenses in the country. Denver, which was averaging 4.63 goals per game, and St. Cloud State, 4.09, gave college hockey fans across the country exactly what this matchup was billed as…and then some. Five different Pioneers tallied at least three points – Bobby Brink (1-4-5), Sean Behrens (0-3-3), Brett Stapley (2-1-3), Savoie (3-0-3), and Carter Mazur (0-3-3) – while two others, Cole Guttman and Shai Buium, each added two points of their own. Denver has one of the few offenses in the country that can boast the kind of truly dangerous depth up and down the entire line chart and it was on full display this evening.
It wasn’t a characteristic start for the Pioneers, though. Less than four minutes into the game, with the Huskies dominating play, Zach Okabe got the scoring started with an innocent-looking shot that was blocked by a DU defender’s stick but had enough momentum to inch past Pioneers goaltender Magnus Chrona who reacted to the shot and couldn’t recover for the deflection. The goal set the tone for the rest of the period as Jami Krannila scored on a slick backhanded shot on the breakaway before Kevin Fitzgerald took advantage of another lucky bounce on the power play and found the open net. Denver did some good things in the first period and generated plenty of dangerous looks but on the scoreboard, it was a disastrous first 20 minutes of the period.
“I think we had a pretty good first period,” Savoie said. “We talked (in the locker room) about them getting a couple lucky bounces and we just needed to keep on pushing forward and keep on playing our game and it will come back to us and the hockey gods will answer us back so that ended up working in our favor in the second.”
The game’s turning point, though, came just 21 seconds into the second period as Nolan Walker was issued a five-minute major for boarding which gave Denver’s 5th-ranked power play a chance to get right back into the game…and boy, did they ever. Savoie, who had not scored in any of his last four games and scored just one in his last nine, channeled his inner Alex Ovechkin and camped out in the right circle for most of the first two minutes of the extended man-advantage. Just a minute into the power play, he drew Husky blood for the first time with a laser of a wrist shot over SCSU goaltender David Hrenak’s shoulder. Then, barely two minutes later, after Hrenak had lost his stick, from the same exact spot, Savoie pulled Denver within one with a five-hole shot and the crowd exploded as the puck connected with the back of the net.
“‘We’ve got a really good hockey team,'” DU head coach David Carle said when asked what he told his team during the first intermission. “‘There’s 40 minutes left and let’s make sure we stick to the script. We’ve been punched in the mouth and let’s go out and see how we respond’ and obviously, they did a great job.”
To the Huskies’ credit, they didn’t go away. Fitzgerald scored his second of the night on an odd-man rush during a stretch of 4-on-4 play to reestablish a 2-goal lead but Denver was relentless and Stapley answered back with a goal from the slot off of a great pass from Behrens just 38 seconds later. The game had succumbed to full chaos at this point, the over (6.5) hit, and the Pios were back to within one. Savoie, to finish off his second-period hat trick and tie the game, found the rebound off of Cole Guttman’s shot with 37 seconds left in the second and didn’t miss the open net. All 4,661 in attendance were pinching themselves: did Denver really come back to tie the game in the second period?
After the beatdown Denver offered in the second period, the third period felt almost academic and though the game was tied, the result never felt in doubt. Cameron Wright scored Denver’s fifth of the night, his team-leading 17th of the season, before Guttman & Brink each added a marker to seal it. Stapley added the empty-netter after Krannila scored with Hrenak on the bench to round out the 8-5 score, but the final few goals were just icing on the cake for a crowd and television audience treated to an incredible February feast of goals.
“I didn’t love the first period from [Brink],” Carle said. “I thought he responded in a big way in the second and third. Savoie, he’s been struggling to score here responds in a big-time way with the hat trick in the second period. To me, both guys are up for the Hobey Baker and got Hobey Baker kind of signature moments for them here at home to put the team on their backs and get us back into the game on the scoreboard and ultimately win us a game.”
Though the process to get there was thrilling, in the grand scheme of the season at large, this was a win that the Pioneers used to hold serve. North Dakota topped Omaha to remain three points behind Denver in the NCHC standings and Western Michigan walloped Colorado College in the Springs to remain effectively tied with the Pioneers at #3 in the Pairwise Rankings. But in the eyes of college hockey fans across the USA, after weeks of playing weak competition, this Denver team rose to the challenge of playing a legitimate team with real national title aspirations and survived getting punched in the mouth. They treated the tens of thousands of eyes watching to a game worth remembering, especially come late March and early April. Don’t call it a comeback. Just remember that these Pioneers are different.
Settle in. We've got your highlights from a wild Friday night at Magness Arena.https://t.co/ytJj1Q5cAJ
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) February 5, 2022
Photo courtesy of Mark Kuhlmann/Denver Athletics