Pioneers Survive UMass-Lowell, Advance to Regional Final for Minnesota Duluth Rematch

Loveland, CO – They call it March Madness for a reason. They say survive and advance. Yes, those things may conjure images of college basketball but on this day, the first day of the NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament which already saw a buzzer-beating goal called back after a 13-minute review, and a near-three-goal comeback by a four-seed against the #2 overall seed, the nightcap in Loveland offered at least as much entertainment as the day’s first three games. And it was between two teams that had only seen each other twice in the last decade and never in the postseason, to boot. Fortunately for the 2,500-some crimson & gold clad fans in attendance at the Loveland Regional Semifinal at the Budweiser Events Center, top-seed Denver survived a physical-minded UMass-Lowell River Hawks team to come away with the 3-2 win and advance to the Regional Final on Saturday afternoon.

In Albany, both games, Minnesota State vs Harvard and Notre Dame vs North Dakota, had more than their fair share of drama. Harvard nearly erased an MSU 3-0 lead with two quick goals in the second and then made it a one-goal game in the waning moments after the Mavericks scored a fourth. Then, in the second game in Albany, Notre Dame appeared to score at the final buzzer to break a 1-1 tie but after a 13-minute review, it was determined that the puck crossed the line after the clock hit 0.00. Notre Dame ended up winning anyway thanks to a power-play goal barely a minute-and-a-half into overtime. Then, the nightcap came, and put an exclamation point on the NCAA Tournament’s first day of craziness.

“This time of year, chaos does sometimes reign,” DU head coach David Carle said. “It appeared that that was going on around the country and that’s what you get with one-and-done tournaments. I just think this field of 16 is an elite group. I think anybody can win this thing. I think it’s set up to have really tight games, emotional swings. Obviously, a good first day for college hockey on the entertainment side and a lot more still to go.”

UMass-Lowell drew first blood against a Denver team that was playing tentative, uncharacteristically sloppy hockey. Throughout much of the opening frame, the Pioneers weren’t moving their feet and even on their one power play, they struggled to generate much momentum. As a result, River Hawks captain Lucas Condotta was able to take advantage of a perfect pass from Reid Stefanson below the goal line and laser a shot past DU goalie Magnus Chrona’s blocker to take the lead for the “visitors.” For the Pioneers, it felt like deja vu all over again after surrendering the first goal last weekend to Minnesota Duluth mid-way through the first period and could never find a way back into the game.

Fortunately, Brett Stapley was in front of UML goaltender Owen Savory at just the right time with less than a minute and a half left in the opening period as he tipped a Justin Lee shot from the point past the River Hawk netminder and into the net to tie the game. It was an important goal that was the result of the Pioneers finally starting to move their feet and start playing their game again, really for the first time since the NCHC Quarterfinals against Miami two weeks ago.

From that point, Denver carried the play through the second and third periods, outshooting UMass-Lowell 9-3 and 11-7, respectively. Despite their dominance in the second period this season, though, they couldn’t break through until after Stapley took a five-minute major for butt-ending (in retaliation for getting cross-checked after a faceoff in the River Hawks zone). During the ensuing four-on-four stretch, goal-scoring savant Carter Savoie streaked down the right into the UML zone and wired a wrister past Savory’s blocker and the Budweiser Events Center erupted as the puck found twine for DU’s first lead in two weeks.

“I kind of blacked out,” Carle said of the stretch of play that led to Savoie’s goal. “I was losing my marbles on the bench. But to go four-on-four, obviously we get [Brink] and [Savoie] on the ice,  a little bit more open ice, Sav makes a great play and scores a goal and we come through on the kill and it’s an emotional high, you felt it in the building.”

“Mike [Benning] made a nice chip,” Savoie added when asked about his goal. “I got the puck, saw we had a two-on-one, saw their D commit to Bob [Brink] and our goalie coach did a really good job in the pre-scout, said to shoot pucks far-side and got the shot right where I wanted it.”

But this being March and all, the game was far from over. The Pios killed off the remainder of Stapley’s major penalty but barely a minute after that, Connor Sodergren found the rebound after a key save by Chrona and didn’t miss on the ensuing shot. The River Hawks were never going to go away and Sodergren’s goal simply proved it.

Fortunately for the Pioneers, Cameron Wright was more than capable and there to save the day and send the Pioneers into the second round with an absolute beauty of a goal:

“It’s a little deflating,” Carle said of giving up the tying goal. “But I give our guys a ton of credit to pick right back up and Mazur and Wright go over the boards and transition the puck north quickly and, kind of compare it to a quarterback throwing it to a wide receiver, Cam kind of chased it down and got his stick on it and put it through the goalie. Unbelievable individual play.”

The Pios had to ice the remaining three minutes, including a full 1:44 of extra-skater time for the River Hawks, but their defense held strong and Chrona made a few more key stops to prevent the game from going to overtime and earn the Pioneers a sixth matchup with the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs this season.

“It’s a good lesson for us to learn,” Wright said of playing UML and how it will translate to Saturday. “They kind of play the same way as Duluth, heavy and defensively structured so it’s a good lesson and it will help us on Saturday.”

In the previous five matchups with UMD, the Pioneers have won twice, including a 5-0 shutout in Duluth and a 5-3 victory in Denver. The last game, in St. Paul at the Frozen Faceoff, featured a stout UMD defense that pushed a dazed, inconsistent Pioneers team around and earned the first of goaltender Ryan Fanti’s now three-straight shutouts. If the Pioneers are going to advance to the Frozen Four in Boston in a few weeks, they’re going to have to do what they, Western Michigan, and Michigan Tech could not do in the past week – fight through UMD’s strong defense and score on Ryan Fanti.

“We owe them,” Wright said of UMD. “We’re going to come out fast and we’re going to get traffic in front of the goalie and we’re going to bat a couple in. We’re going to find a way to score on this guy and beat them.”

If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that Saturday afternoon’s game at the BEC in Loveland is going to be must-see hockey. The Pioneers fought through UML’s tough defense tonight to find a way to score three times against an elite goaltender. They are going to have to replicate this kind of performance in two days to finally exact that revenge on the Bulldogs and continue to survive and advance their way to Boston on their quest to hang banner number nine.


Top photo: Justin Tafoya/Clarkson Creative via Denver Athletics

6 thoughts on “Pioneers Survive UMass-Lowell, Advance to Regional Final for Minnesota Duluth Rematch”

  1. Stapley needs to thank his teammates, and play the game of his life on Saturday. How do you lose your cool in a tie game in the third period of the NCAA tournament, and put your whole season at risk with a stupid 5 minute major? Make up for it Stapley, and get your team to Boston with your best game of the season on Saturday.

    Pretty good game by Chrona, great third goal, and emotional penalty kill in the 3rd period. DU seems to be done with its typical 5-2 wins. Every game figures to be a tough grind from here on out, and DU needs to be prepared for that.

    Congrats on the win. Looking forward to returning to Loveland (which feels like Wyoming, it’s so far away.)

  2. Great gutsy win by DU tonight. Once they realized that Lowell wasn’t going to lay down, they really picked up their game.

    It was so great to see Boone and the banner in full view throughout the game!

    It’s going to take an extreme full 60 minute effort to beat Duluth on Saturday. Guess we’ll see what this small young team is really made of.

    Go Pioneers!!

  3. This was a big step for the Pios. People need to remember that only 5 members of this DU team have EVER played in an NCAA tourney game before last night. So the fact that DU began the game nervous, jittery and off-kilter should not come as a big surprise for the second-youngest team in the country.

    But as good hockey players do, they took the punches from the older, heavier RiverHawks, and grew into the game as it went along. And when the game was up for grabs and needed to be won, DU’s two biggest goal scorers scored big goals in the big third -period moments to win a game that DU deserved to win. The best teams get those kind of big moment performances, and Savoie and Wright made the magic happen, on cue.

    Survive and advance…

    Of course, there are many points of emphasis that Carle will implore to his team before the Duluth game. Chief among them is don’t take a 5 minute major penalty – those can be season-killers. The Pios were lucky to get out of that alive, and while it gave them a lift after, there are less risky ways to give your team a lift.

    The second point of emphasis is the need for a better start. Slow starts have been a problem all year for Denver, and at this time of year, it can be fatal. Be focused and detailed, but with enough channelled emotion that taking away an opponent’s belief can be a huge help.

    Finally, at this time of year, every opponent deserves to be there, and the chances of blowing teams out by 5-1 scores are unlikely. The Pios need to try and win each segment of the game, grind down Duluth at altitude and get to the hard areas. This is big-boy hockey…

  4. I think I can finally exhale………

    Wow, that was a battle last night. Exciting, tense, nail-biting playoff hockey. Pios showed their grit and resolve to beat a big, physical, and determined UML team. Credit the Riverhawks–those guys played an effective “system” game, and gave DU a formidable test all game long.

    I felt a lot of anxious moments as that game went along. I kept waiting (and hoping) for DU to cash in on the PP and put some distance between themselves and UML. Obviously that didn’t happen. But DU stuck with it and got the huge goal, a thing of beauty, from Wright. That was a terrific play, as was Savioe’s snipe. Even then, though, there were some anxious moments as the clock wound down.

    Pios did look a bit nervous and tentative in the first period. They made some sloppy passes in particular–they’ll need to clean that up for tomorrow and they’ll need a better start against Duluth, no question. Playing from behind against that team and that goaltender is not a recipe for success. I also wished DU had a harder, more consistent forecheck last night. UML had too many easy breakouts. Pios need to pressure the Duluth blueliners from the start tomorrow. Also, I hope DU can be better on faceoffs tomorrow. I looked at the stats from last night and DU actually had a slight advantage, 34-32, on UML, but it didn’t feel that way. I do think UML’s size played a factor there. Finally, Pios need to get traffic in front of Fanti, make him uncomfortable, and get as many pucks to the net as possible. I thought DU passed on a few too many shot attempts last night. Having said all that, though, I’m really proud of the team for showing that grit and character last night. Can’t wait for tomorrow.

    1 down, 3 to go.

  5. Great game. Felt like one of those games where Lowell was going to steal it. Pios thoroughly controlled the game after the first period but just had some troubles getting it past their goalie who had a great night. Couple of unfortunate/dumb penalties and I thought Pios could have lost. One of those games where you are relieved when the horn sounds.

    I think as long as DU can avoid penalties they will have a good chance tomorrow night. Fun to watch!

    I also knew Loveland would turn out pretty well. Hopefully they get a solid showing tomorrow!

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