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As UMD has pointed out the last two seasons, the national ratings mean nothing until the end of the season, as far as winning the NCAA championship is concerned. But they are fun, and good for some spirited debates. But we will make one claim: Those were the best two college hockey teams in the country battling to a standstill at AMSOIL Arena last weekend.
Denver came to Duluth 8-0 and ranked No 1 in the country, and the Pioneers left town with a tie and a loss, and their only point was earned when Brett Stapley put a world-class move on Hunter Shepard to score the only goal of a shootout, following two scintillating overtime periods. The Bulldogs came back in the second game much the way they ended the first game, and skated off to a 5-2 victory.
There might be better hockey battles than those two that were conducted at AMSOIL Arena last weekend. Then again, maybe there won’t be.
Game 1 was ragged, from UMD’s standpoint, and coming off a weekend bye with the expectation they could be hitting on all cylinders was too much to ask. Denver was, however, and hit the ice in a surly mood. Running around the ice and crashing Bulldogs into the boards with reckless abandon, the game settled down a bit after Denver’s Jaakko Heikkinen served a double minor for running Kobe Roth into the sideboards, and on his return to the ice, defenseman Nick Wolff caught him with a clean check that deposited him over the boards and into the UMD bench, head-down, feet-up.
But Denver gained an early 1-0 lead 0on Liam Finlay’s goal at 3:58 and pomade it 2-0 on a Brett Edwards goal at 11:45. Cole Koepke, who continues to play like a take-charge senior instead of a sophomore, got one back for the Bulldogs later in the period, but Finlay scored again from the right face-off dot after a neat pass out of the corner by Hank Crone. That made it 3-1 after two periods, and although the shots were almost even, the Pioneers had the upper hand.
The best indication of how rugged the game was came by checking the penalty list. These were not hooking, hooding and interference, but boarding, roughing, cross-checking, high-sticking, roughing, roughing
and slashing, through the first two periods. Finally, the Bulldogs got up into top gear in the third period, mainly because of Scott Perunovich, the brilliant junior defenseman who tantalizes foes with his patience and his playmaking skills.
It showed on a power play at 11:35 of the third, when Perunovich held the puck at the right point, then passed hard to Nick Swaney, deep on the right. Swaney is good for a shot in such situations, but this time he zipped a pass across the slot node Roth put it away with a one-timer for a power-play goal that cut the deficit to 3-2.
Coach Scott Sandelin pulled goaltender Hunter Shepard in the final minute, just as the Bulldogs were trying to hold the puck in the Denver zone. Dylan Samberg spun around to hold the left point, and when he moved it up, there was Perunovich, who had disappeared from the right point and reappeared right where he was needed, at the top of the left circle. The last minute was winding down when Noah Cates came off the bench for Shepard, and Perunovich not only saw him, he hit him with a perfect pas from the left boards, and Cates beat Denver’s 6-foot-6 freshman goaltender Magnus Chrona with a one-timer — at 19:28.
Just 32.1 seconds from defeat, the Bulldogs had tied it, and the teams fought ferociously through a 5-minute 5-on-5 overtime, and then through a 5-minute 3-on-3 overtime, with no goals. NCHC rules then call for a “sudden death” shootout, meaning that each side gets a turn, then another, and another, until somebody wins. It didn’t take that long. After Chrona stopped Jackson Cates, Brett Stapley took Denver’s turn, skated in, and after making a deliberate deke to go left, reversed himself and outreached Shepard to tuck the winning goal in at the right edge.
It was exhaustive, and UMD almost fought their way back from what coach Sandelin called a soft first 45 minutes — “We didn’t make it hard enough for them at first,” he said. But they put themselves into position to steal a victory, but no. Not against this foe. However, Saturday night was a different story.
There were a couple early skirmishes, although the officials had far more difficulty choosing the aggressors than the 5,874 fans, who were stirred up when the Pioneers Jake Durflinger cruised by and knocked Shepard down in the crease, while the officials were breaking up a scuffle behind the net, among other indiscretions. But the Bulldogs responded in the best manner, with a power play goal at 7:37 of the first. Again it was Perunovich, this time at center point, feeding deep on the right for Swaney, who shot, and Jackson Cates knocked in the rebound in heavy congestion at the crease.
Denver’s Brett Edwards tied it when Brett Stapley shot and the puck popped past Shepard and slid in, then the Pioneers took a 2-1 lead early in the second when Jaakko Heikkinen backhanded one in from the right edge. At that point, it seemed as thought the Bulldogs gathered themselves up and took over the game.
At 7:28 of the middle period, Quinn Olson got the puck to center Jade Miller, who fed Koby Bender breaking on the right. Bender caught the pass and snapped a shot that somehow beat Chrona to the short side for a 2-2 tie. Bender, from Cloquet, made a neat play to get the puck in front to Luke Loheit, who was all alone, stepped to his left and scored for a 3-2 UMD lead.
Bender said he was “lucky enough to finish it” on his goal, then downplayed his assist as well, saying “I threw it in front, and Luke was very open. We were playing great all night, even when they got up 2-1, we just had to keep playing the way we were.”
In the third period, the Bulldogs were rolling, although the score stayed dangerously close at 3-2 until only 3:34 remained, when Samberg fed Noah Cates on the right side, and he cut to the net to steer a shot through Chrona’s legs for a 4-2 lead. “Noah went 5-hole,” said brother Jackson, after both brothers had scored. “It’s a lot of fun to play together, and those were both big goals.”
Chrona went to the bench with 3:11 left, and UMD proved their poise could cling to the lead, gaining a boost when Swaney fed Koepke, who rifled a 60-footer into the empty net with 2:45 left, sealing the victory.
As if to serve notice — junior hockey style — for the rematch later in the season in Denver, Michael Davies slashed and roughed Quinn Olson to allow the Bulldogs to cruise to the finish on a power play.
Next up for the Bulldogs is a trip to Miami this weekend, followed by a home set against Colorado College. Nothing will be easy for the Bulldogs, which seems to be just the way they like it. Their great comeback Friday and their solid victory Saturday over previously unbeaten Denver moved them up to No. 6 nationally. But on Saturday night, they were definitely the No. 1 team in the country.