The high-scoring Denver men’s hockey team doesn’t play a lot of nail-biters. But the Pioneers weren’t spooked when things got close in the final minutes of the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Cameron Wright scored the winning goal for Denver at 17:03 of the third period to break a tie and earn a 3-2 win over UMass Lowell Thursday night in Loveland, Colo.
“We believe in each other and we believe in our team,” Wright said. “We know that we can win games and score goals. (We) haven’t had too many close games, so it was a good lesson for us to learn to stick with it and find a way to win that game.”
No. 1 Denver (28-9-1) advanced to Saturday’s regional final, where it will play No. 2 Minnesota Duluth for a trip to the Frozen Four. No. 4 Lowell’s season is over at 21-11-3. Duluth (22-15-4) was a 3-0 winner over No. 3 Michigan Tech (21-13-3) in the afternoon semifinal on Thursday.
Carter Mazur scooped up a bouncing puck off the boards at the red line on the right side, carried the puck into the Lowell zone and fed it to a streaking Wright who extended his stick just enough to deflect it into the goal past Lowell goaltender Owen Savory (22 saves), whipping the mostly home crowd into a frenzy.
“They didn’t make it easy,” Denver coach David Carle said about Lowell. “It was a really challenging game, and for that I give our players a ton of credit for sticking with it. We have not been in a lot of these really tight games this year.”
Lowell opened the scoring on Lucas Condotta’s 10th goal of the season. A scrum behind the net involving Lowell’s Marek Korencik and Nik Armstrong-Kingkade resulted in the puck getting kicked out to the point where Condotta smacked it to the right side of Pioneers goalie Magnus Chrona (16 saves) for a 1-0 lead at 10:18.
The Pioneers got on the board late in the first when junior defenseman Justin Lee whipped a wrister from the left faceoff circle toward the net, where Brett Stapely redirected it past the blocker of a flummoxed Savory to tie the game at 18:36. It was Stapely’s 16th goal of the season.
Denver almost took a 2-1 lead in the final minutes of the middle frame when a Sean Behrens shot from high in the slot pinged off the post and bounced off the back of Savory’s right leg. With the puck slowly creeping toward the goal line, River Hawks defender Jon McDonald got his stick on it just in time to clear it to safety. So close was the play, Denver’s Massimo Rizzo appeared to begin a premature goal celebration.
Denver, playing just an hour away from its campus, outshot the River Hawks 28-18 and controlled the pace of play throughout most of the second and third periods. But Lowell proved hard to shake.
“I liked the effort,” Lowell coach Norm Bazin said. “I thought the guys left it on the ice. A very classy group of seven seniors. I liked our start today. Our penalty kill was good. Unfortunately we got caught killing three in the second, sapped a little bit of our energy.”
With the teams playing 4-on-4 in the third period, Savoie picked up the puck deep in the Pioneers zone and skated the length of the ice down the right side. With he and Bobby Brink leading a 2-on-1 charge against Lowell’s Nick Austin, Savoie faked to Brink but elected to keep the puck himself and ripped it top shelf on Savory’s far side for a 2-1 lead at 9:26.
“I saw their D commit to Bob,” Savoie said. “Our goalie coach did a really good job on the pre-scout, so I had to shoot far side. I got the shot right where I wanted it.”
Lowell made it a tie game for the third time on the night at 14:21 of the final frame when Connor Sodergren got a stick on a bouncing puck in front of the net following a centering feed from Matt Crasa on the right wing.
“I thought we played a great game,” Lowell’s Condotta said. “They were just one goal better than us.”