They don’t call it the NCHC meat-grinder for nothing.
The top-ranked Denver Pioneers were still smarting after getting pasted on home ice 3-0 by the University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks on Friday night. Accordingly, the Pioneers were determined to answer back hard on Saturday night, which they did with an emphatic, explosive but ultimately difficult 6-3 victory to salvage the NCHC split before 5,200+ happy DU fans and many of the players’ parents, in town for DU’s annual Hockey Parents’ Weekend.
Mike Benning led the way for Denver (10-4-0) with a pair of snipes, his patented wristers from the face-off circles, (goals three and four of the season) to get Denver going in the both the first and second periods, sandwiched around a UNO goal from Jack Randl to make the score 2-1 DU in the second period. Benning went glove side high on the first one, bearing Omaha goalie Jake Kucharski, and blocker side on the second marker.
The critical moments of the game came when the hard-skating Pioneers were able to build on Benning’s second goal in the second period with a burst of three unanswered goals. Just 19 seconds after Benning had scored at 3:49 of the second, the Pios struck again when Massimo Rizzo scored on a seeing-eye wrister that crawled up the shoulder of Kucharski only to trickle back down and over the Maverick goal line to make it the score 3-1 Pios, and the Mavs were on the proverbial ropes. Sensing the blood in the water, Denver moved in for the eventual game-winner, a pretty, even-strength wrister from the stick of Harvard transfer Casey Dornbach to take Denver to a 4-1 lead, beating UNO goalie Kucharski high to the short-side at 11:44 of the second and sending the Pio faithful into delirium.
With DU seemingly cruising and firmly in control at the mid point of the game and the Mavs’ struggling to keep up, the game suddenly took a strange opposite turn, with two confusing, consecutive (and ultimately offsetting) lengthy major penalty reviews, followed by a sketchy cross-checking penalty call on Rizzo that proved to be momentum-breakers for Denver. A thus well-rested UNO team, no longer gasping for air, followed up after all the delays with Jack Randl’s second goal on the power-play with just 28 seconds left in the second period, to cut Denver’s lead to 4-2.
The Mavericks, now inspired by their late second period goal, carried their newfound momentum in the early third period, when Miller buried his pass on an odd-man rush past Denver goalie Magnus Chrona just 32 seconds into the third, forcing the Denver fans to begin to sweat with the game now suddenly 4-3 Denver with virtually a full period left to play.
But fortunately Denver bore down again, and used their speed and skills to draw a UNO penalty and regain control with a key power-play wrister by Tristan Broz after a nifty pass from Jack Devine, restoring Denver’s two goal margin at 11:37 of the third period, 5-3. The Broz goal was a crucial insurance marker for Denver, as Pios’ coach David Carle was rewarded for his tactical decision to send out Denver’s second power play unit first (instead of the more high-powered first power play unit) after a strong effort by the second unit on a previous power-play.
The Mavs pulled Kurcharski in the final two minutes of the game for the extra attacker, but DU’s Aidan Thompson crushed any remaining Omaha hopes with an empty netter from the blue line with just over a minute remaining in the contest, making the final score 6-3 Denver.
Credit Omaha for a strong weekend. The Mavs looked a lot better than their middling record would indicate. Jack Randl scored his 12th and 13th goals of the year for the Mavs (6-6-2), while linemate Matt Miller added the other Maverick goal and two helpers on Randl’s goals.
NOTES: The six goals Denver scored tied the Pioneer’s highest offensive output on the season, a stark contrast to the zero goals DU scored on Friday night in the series opener…. DU outshot UNO 35-26 on Saturday….DU honored recently deceased US Hockey Hall of Fame, NHLer and Pioneer all-American Peter McNab before the game with a video tribute, followed by a ceremonial puck drop by Dave McNab, Peter’s brother, former college teammate and roommate of former Pioneer coach George Gwozdecky when both played at Wisconsin. Dave McNab went on to long NHL management career….DU will go out of NCHC play for a non-league series with Arizona State next weekend in Denver.