Consistently handling one opponent over several games in a season may be harder in hockey than any other sport. But don’t tell that to the Denver Pioneers, who, barring a matchup in the NCAA tournament, defeated a talented Minnesota-Duluth team five times in five tries this season.
The latest DU win came with the highest stakes since the teams played for a national championship last April. Friday night’s 3-1 semifinal win at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff in St. Paul sends Denver to Saturday’s conference championship game, where they will face St. Cloud State, for the first time since 2014.
The game, played in front of a crowd of 11,983 in St. Paul, was tightly contested throughout and, like so many DU-UMD games in past seasons, was effectively a one-goal game, with Denver adding an empty net goal in the final minute.
Each team had its own dominant period in the first 40 minutes, with the Pioneers finding an edge quickly after the puck had dropped and taking the game’s first four shots. But offense was bound to be limited, with two of the nation’s best goaltenders in action in DU senior Tanner Jaillet and UMD’s Hunter Shepard.
It took until DU was given a man advantage for the Pioneers to cash in on their early scoring chances. After Peter Kreiger took a hooking penalty at 8:45, it took DU only ten seconds to set up their power play and get the puck to Henrik Borgström on the point. Borgström, the NCHC Player of the Year and Hobey Baker Award Finalist, did the rest.
Borgström officially hit the 50-point mark with the goal, putting him alone in fifth place in the NCAA. Ian Mitchell fed the puck to Borgström for his 23rd of the season and Troy Terry was credited with the secondary assist, his 31st of the season and his seventh point in the NCHC tournament.
The 1-0 lead held at the end of the period, with DU holding a 10-4 advantage in shots on goal. However, freshman Jake Durflinger was called for cross-checking with just eight seconds left in the period, giving the Bulldogs a man advantage to start the second period.
Like Denver, UMD’s potent power play didn’t need much time to get going. At 1:37, with just 16 seconds left in Durflinger’s penalty, UMD freshman phenom Scott Perunovich beat Jaillet upstairs on a wrist shot from the point.
After the Bulldogs had taken the first five shot attempts of the period, Denver capitalized minutes later on a free-for-all in front of the net that ended up on the stick of Colin Staub, who finished off a rebound while falling to his back.
UMD racked up a significant advantage in scoring chances in the second period, mostly thanks to uncharacteristic penalties taken by Denver. Including a game misconduct for checking from behind called on Blake Hillman late in the period, the Pioneers spent over six minutes in the last half of the period shorthanded, including a full minute of 5-on-3 play.
Jaillet, who made 15 second period saves, and the DU penalty kill held up, killing off almost three minutes worth of Hillman’s penalty to start the third period.
Whatever was said by DU head coach Jim Montgomery, who voiced his displeasure with the penalties his team took after the game, at the period break seemed to resonate, as Denver played clean hockey the rest of the way. Instead, it was UMD who hurt their chances at netting the tying goal with two minor penalties in the final five minutes.
Perunovich was whistled for slashing with under two minutes left and only a minute after UMD had finished killing off another minor. Shorthanded, UMD pulled Shepard to send out a fifth skater, but Adam Plant was able to put the game on ice with an empty-netter, his second point of the night.
The win gets Denver over their recent struggles in the NCHC semifinals, as they now have a shot for a conference title in their first championship game since 2014. To do so, DU will need to prevail in a fifth matchup against St. Cloud State, who won the league’s regular season crown and advanced to the title game with an overtime win over North Dakota.
North Dakota and UMD will play for third place before DU-SCSU Saturday, with the loser very possibly losing out on an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament, which will be announced Sunday afternoon.
Saturday night’s championship game is a 7:30 PM MT start and can be seen on CBS Sports.