Denver secures spot in championship over Michigan

The University of Michigan Wolverines (31-10-1) and University of Denver Pioneers (30-9-1) opened the Frozen Four at TD Garden Thursday evening as they fought for a spot in Saturday’s championship game. Denver came away with a nail-biting 3-2 OT victory to secure their spot in the title matchup.

“When we talk about what we want to do in Denver, it’s about winning championships and getting opportunities to hang in the banners,” head coach David Carle said in the postgame press conference. “To have this opportunity is very special.” 

Denver sits at No.1 in the NCHC standings as does Michigan in the Big Ten conference, so they both came into the tournament as pretty confident groups. It was the Pioneers, though, that had the edge in the opening 20 minutes, and ultimately, the night. 

Michigan head coach Mel Pearson talked about the rewarding experience of being part of the Wolverine program, despite the loss, in the postgame press conference. 

“I couldn’t be more proud of the young men that I was able to coach this year,” Pearson said. “It’s the most fun I’ve had and I owe it all to them and I don’t want this one game to define who they are as hockey players or people.” 

The Wolverines went more than ten minutes before tallying their first shot on goal while Denver was all over the ice, creating space for themselves and producing some quality looks from around the offensive zone. 

This early jump rewarded the Pioneers with a 1-0 lead at 11:22. Junior defenseman Justin Lee released a blast from the point that’s rebound bounced out in front of the net for senior forward Brett Stapley to collect. The Montreal Canadiens draft pick dragged the puck to the left and tucked it behind sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo to start the night’s scoring. 

Michigan was unable to find the equalizer before the first period concluded, but netted the tying goal 4:03 into the second. Senior forward Nolan Moyle worked his way through two Pioneers to push the puck on net, picked it up behind junior goalie Mangus Chrona and dished it out to senior forward Jimmy Lambert who knocked it in and made it 1-1. 

A real extra effort play from Moyle, the Wolverines seemed to settle into the game more as both sides raised their compete level in the middle frame. 

The periods seemed to fly by with very little stoppages and both squads playing disciplined hockey –– Denver never saw the inside of the sin bin for the entirety of the game. The first penalty of the night came with 6:11 left on the clock in the second as Moyle was dealt two for holding. 

“Discipline has been an issue of ours throughout the season at times, and it’s the best it’s been all year in the biggest moment,” Carle said. “It’s hard to be that difficult to play against without the puck and not take penalties –– for that I’m really proud of our players.” 

The Wolverines had a productive penalty kill, limiting Pioneer chances while getting in passing lanes and creating some offensive rushes of their own. The second period ended with a score of 1-1 and 20 minutes to see who wanted it more. 

Denver regained the lead at 5:36 in the third period with a deflection goal from senior forward Cameron Wright. The original shot came from sophomore defenseman Mike Benning at the blueline, eventually finding its way to the back of the net for a 2-1 advantage. 

Less than four minutes later, Michigan was back on the attack and capitalized off a bouncing puck on the doorstep that sophomore forward Thomas Bordeleau finally got a stick on and hit past Chrona, knotting the game 2-2 and eventually forcing overtime. 

Sophomore forward Carter Savoie was the night’s hero for Denver with his electric game winning goal at 14:53 in the extra hockey. Junior forward Bobby Brink tossed the puck from the downlow right corner that Savoie then intercepted and dumped in the net to advance his Pioneer team to the championship game. 

“No words to describe it, best feeling ever,” Savoie said of his game-winner in the postgame press conference. “We’ve got a chance to win the championship here, so I mean, no better feeling than that.”

Denver will face the Minnesota State Mavericks in Saturday’s title matchup after they beat the University of Minnesota 5-1 on Thursday. The puck will drop at 8:00p.m. at the Garden and we’ll have coverage on the blog, Twitter @BOShockeyblog and Instagram @boston.hockey.blog.