Pioneers Drop 3-2 Thriller to Bulldogs for First Home Loss

You can’t win ’em all. No matter how well the #3 Denver Pioneers (21-6-1, 14-4-0-1 NCHC, 41 pts) had been playing, and they had been playing extremely well, winning each of their last nine games, you simply can’t win every game. In a game where the Pioneers dominated nearly every facet, a loss didn’t seem likely but combine poor specialty teams play with two elite goaltenders on the #6 Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs’ (16-11-3, 9-6-3-0-1-1 NCHC, 32 pts) roster and it was the perfect combination for the Pios to drop their first game of 2022 and their first loss at Magness Arena all season. The Pios had their looks and plenty of them, but in the end, the Bulldogs came away with the thrilling 3-2 victory.

For a Pioneers team that had not lost on home ice this season, it was an inauspicious, uncharacteristic start as they gave up the opening goal just 31 seconds into the game on a two-on-one rush where Kobe Roth buried a shot past DU goaltender Magnus Chrona. The Pioneers settled into the game soon after and for the most part, took control of it. After UMD recorded three of the game’s first four shots, Denver recorded the next seven and had essentially set up shop in UMD’s zone. Only problem? They weren’t finding the back of the net behind Bulldogs goaltender Ryan Fanti.

“That was something we were harping on in between periods,” DU defenseman Kyle Mayhew said of DU’s inability to score and put the puck on net. “I think with how much we’ve been scoring, we just take the extra second sometimes and I think we were overthinking it a little bit. We were really trying to pick those corners.”

As a result of Fanti’s stellar play in UMD’s crease, the teams entered the first intermission with the score 1-0 in favor of the visitors. Denver did just about everything except score a goal, which ended up becoming a theme over the course of the rest of the night.

Normally, going into the second period trailing by just one goal didn’t mean much to this Pioneers team who had outscored opponents 55-16 in the middle frame this season. Tonight, however, the feeling was different. UMD came out with a renewed desire to defend and play a low-scoring hockey game. It played right into their hands and while Denver did score in the second period on a seeing-eye shot from the point by Justin Lee, there just wasn’t the same kind of sustained pressure with tons of looks thanks to UMD’s ability to get in shooting and passing lanes to disrupt an otherwise humming DU offense which is something most teams have failed to do against the Pioneers this season.

Entering the second period, though, the story of the night was in UMD’s crease. After Ryan Fanti left the game with an illness that is apparently sweeping through the Bulldogs locker room, Zach Stejskal entered the game for the first time since he was diagnosed with testicular cancer four months ago. He was immediately greeted with four great scoring chances from the Pioneers and he stopped them all before Lee finally found twine.

Though it didn’t take long for Stejskal to settle in, the Pioneers wasted no time peppering him with shots and in the third period, Shai Buium, on a shot very similar to Lee’s in the second, gave Denver its only lead of the night and all of a sudden, it felt like the Pioneers were going to pass yet another test with flying colors.

UMD had other ideas, though. A little more than three minutes after DU took the lead, Kobe Roth scored a controversial goal on the power play. It appeared that he played the puck with a high stick before the puck went in but after review, it was determined that it was a good goal and the game would remain tied.

“They looked at it for a high stick,” DU head coach David Carle said of the explanation he received from the officials on the tying goal. “They said the stick blade was high but the point of contact was on the shaft which was within whatever the legal range of the rules.”

Denver continued to put pressure on Stejskal and UMD’s defense but again, the pucks just weren’t finding their way across the goal line, even on the most dangerous of chances, like a two-on-one look with Cameron Wright looking at a wide-open net:

At that point, even with the game tied, it certainly seemed like a foregone conclusion that either the game was going to overtime or UMD was going to come away with a rather unlikely victory. Unfortunately for the Pios, the hockey gods chose the latter and Darian Gotz scored his first career goal for the Bulldogs with fewer than five minutes left to earn the victory for the visitors. Denver did mount some quality attacks in the waning minutes but it wasn’t enough to beat Stejskal and the stout Bulldogs who are the only NCHC team who have yet to be swept in conference play.

We were good in moments and carried the play,” DU head coach David Carle said. “They responded well and made life hard on us at times. Power play execution is something that your eye is drawn toward. Not only did it not score, I don’t think it generated a lot of momentum for us either. The margin gets tighter this time of year and we have to find different ways to score goals and be harder in the offensive zone. I think this is a great learning lesson to have on February 12th to have to go through this after going on a really good run.”

There are any number of reasons you could point to as to why the Pioneers lost this game but the most glaring one is the play of special teams, going just 2-for-3 on the penalty kill and 0-for-5 on the power play certainly hurt DU’s case. But in the end, to get a bit philosophical, this was a loss in the midst of the toughest stretch of the season that felt like a long time coming. When you’re riding high on a nine-game winning streak and an 11-game unbeaten streak dating back to the last time the Pios played these same Bulldogs, it almost feels like you’re due for a game like this.

“I thought we played pretty well,” graduate student Ryan Barrow said. “I think it comes down to the fact that this league is so close as we all know and the margin for error is just so small and it gets smaller and smaller this time of year. I mean special teams, they go and get a goal, we don’t. We give up an odd-man rush early and those are two parts of our process that we try to accomplish every night so that hurt us.”

Now, with a trip to Kalamazoo, a place where the Pioneers have struggled mightily in recent years, on the docket next weekend, it’s imperative that the Pioneers come away with at least a split against the #5 Western Michigan Broncos who split with St. Cloud State this weekend.

“We haven’t focused too much on Western [yet],” Barrow said. “But I’ve played there four times and I’m 0-4 in my career. It’s a really hard place to play, harder than The Ralph at NoDak, so I just think we have to be ready for that and be really detailed in practice this week.”

Losses can be a good thing and, we know there have already been many comparisons to the 2017 team, but it’s hard not to remember the loss that Denver had in the Frozen Faceoff semifinal that year that ended their 13-game winning streak. It was an important moment that reminded that team that they were, in fact, human and it gave them a springboard throughout the final five games of that season when they raised that trophy in Chicago. Even that team, one of the best Denver teams of all time, couldn’t win ’em all.


Top photo: Andy Cross/The Denver Post

6 thoughts on “Pioneers Drop 3-2 Thriller to Bulldogs for First Home Loss”

  1. I didn’t see any of the lacrosse game, except a few minutes as I walked by on the way to the basketball game. I’m glad they won. Otherwise, it was a frustrating day to be a Pioneer fan. I took my son to the hoops game, went home, had something to eat and a beer, and then took the family to the hockey game. I probably should have had a few more beers before the hockey game.

    DU is clearly the better team, but last night was an exercise in frustration. Blame this one on the special teams. 0-5 on the PP and a short-handed goal surrendered. That was painful. I looked at the stats–DU had the 5 PPs and only managed 6 shots. That’s just not good enough. And I thought the Pios, especially as the game wore on, needed to do a better job getting traffic in front of Stejskal. He was playing very well and seemed to get better as the game went on. Tip your cap to him and the rest of that UMD team. They played an effective road game and are very determined and well-coached.

    In the grand scheme of things, it’s hard to get too bent out of shape about this loss. This team is 21-6-1, had a long winning streak at home, hadn’t lost since December 11 (to Duluth, of course), and treated us fans to a lot of great hockey. Obviously better to lose now as opposed to next month. Time to reset and start a new winning streak. Won’t be easy, though. A heavyweight battle looms next weekend against WMU, part of 5 straight road games.

  2. The refs didn’t give UMD the game. UMD just took it when it mattered, which is what good teams do. The Bulldogs were clearly inspired by their goalie teammate who came off the bench for the first time this season (after testicular cancer treatment) and they took advantage of the opportunities they created.

    At the same time, DU didn’t take advantage of their own opportunities. DU had more power plays than UMD AND a penalty shot, too, all of which went begging for the Pioneers. And DU gave up a PPG, too, which UMD didn’t. The Pios’ PK has been bad all season (DU ranks #45 out of 59 teams in PK) and that can be a devastating problem as these games get closer down the stretch.

    To make matters worse, the Pioneers were very aware that UMD would come out hard in the first period, but Denver did not match UMDs intensity at the start on home ice, which forced them to play catch up for a long time. Even with all those problems, DU still controlled most of the play and had many chances to salt away the win, but at the end of the day, DU gagged up a two-goal lead in the third period to a UMD team that was missing its best player at the Olympics.

    The Pios need to grow from this one, and Carle has a lot to work on over the final month to get the Pios playing their best hockey when it matters…

    DU’s major to do list:
    -Get lockdown defense ready so that late game leads can be closed out
    -Fix those slow starts and giving up early goals
    -Get more pucks on net and stop trying to pick corners
    -Fix the poor PK. It’s been bad all year.
    -Chrona’s consistency needs work.

  3. Anyone see Sandelin call a timeout late in the game following a Duluth icing while nursing the one goal lead? Problem was, the Dogs had already used their one allotted time out.

    DU tv announcer rightfully said the NCAA should have a rule similar to basketball where a technical foul gets called if a team calls a timeout but doesn’t have any left; maybe a penalty needs to be assessed in hockey if that happens. Carle was rightfully upset as it bought Duluth enough time to rest some tired players by the time the stripes figured out what was happening and dropped the puck.

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