Denver has seen its share of Minnesota State comebacks over the years, so forgive the third-ranked Pioneers for feeling like they stole a couple of points in Friday night’s Western Collegiate Hockey Association series opener.
“It always seems that when these two teams get together, there are going to be a lot of unique changes in emotional momentum,” Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky said after his team’s 4-3 victory before a crowd of 3,184 at the Verizon Wireless Center.
Denver was able to get an early three-goal lead and held off a second-half charge by the Mavericks. Pioneers goalie Sam Brittain stopped 33 shots, while MSU’s goaltenders struggled through the game.
Senior Phil Cook allowed three goals on 12 shots before being pulled early in the second period. Freshman Stephon Williams made seven saves in the second but allowed the only shot he faced in the third period to get past him. That goal, by Daniel Doremus, ended up as the game-winner.
“I don’t know if we deserved a 3-nothing lead, but we had it,” Gwozdecky said, “They came storming back, but our best player was our goaltender. He did a terrific job.”
The Mavericks did not allow a power-play goal but three penalties in the game’s first 10 minutes took them out of their game.
Denver grabbed its lead on a 4-on-4 goal by Nolan Zajac at 10:18 of the first period. Zajac backhanded the puck over Cook’s glove-side shoulder.
Early in the second, the Pioneers went right back to that spot, as standout defenseman Joey LaLeggia ripped a wrist shot from the blue line and Shawn Ostrow deflected a Paul Phillips pass there in the period’s first 3 1⁄2 minutes.
Exit Cook. Enter Williams.
“We have a tendency to make it difficult on ourselves,” Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said. “We’re just not a deep enough hockey team to be able to do that. Nobody is in the WCHA.
“It doesn’t matter, (if it’s) the first-place team, which is Denver, all the way down to the bottom. The game’s too difficult. It’s such a fine line between winning hockey games and losing hockey games. Tonight, in my opinion, that cost us two points.”
After a penalty kill late in the second period, the Mavericks finally stopped sleepwalking and scored two goals in the final 4:17 before intermission.
Jean-Paul LaFontaine beat Brittain on a wrap-around and, two minutes later, assisted on Eriah Hayes’ goal with 2:46 remaining.
“I thought we stayed out of the box for a little while,” Hastings said. “We’re a much better team when we play 5-on-5 hockey.”
The Mavericks desperate play continued into the third period, but they couldn’t score on two early power plays. When Doremus scored to make it a two-goal game again with 6:06 left in the third, almost all life was sucked out of the building.
With nearly four minutes left in the game, Hastings pulled Williams for an extra attacker, and the Mavericks got one goal back, another by LaFontaine for a three-point night.
But with 1:51 to play, LaFontaine took himself out of the game and put the Mavericks a man down when he took a major penalty for checking from behind. Minnesota State got one more great chance to score, but Brittain was able to corral a knuckling Hayes’ shot off a faceoff.
“Their guy made a big save at a very important time in the game,” Hastings said.
The loss put the Mavericks’ winless streak against Denver at 15 games (0-13-2).
Minnesota State (3-4-2, 1-4-0 in WCHA) and Denver (6-1-0, 4-1-0) will play again at 7:07 p.m. tonight.