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Freshman netminder Sam Brittain turns aside 36 shots for Pioneers

Freshman Sam Brittain makes one of his 36 saves for Denver

SAINT PAUL, MN. --- Bemidji State's improbable run through the WCHA playoffs came to an abrupt end in the third period of Friday's semifinals when Denver, after weathering an uncharacteristic offensive display by the Beavers, pumped in four unanswered goals to win 6-2 and earn a spot in Saturday night's Final Five championship game.

Denver (24-10-5) finally gave credibility to the form chart, and, after failing to win either game at the Final Five a year ago, the Pioneers now await a traditional rival in either top-seeded North Dakota or Colorado College for the 7:07 p.m. Saturday title game, pending the outcome of the second semifinal between those two.

Bemidji State (15-18-5) finished 10th in the WCHA, then stunned No. 3 seed Nebraska-Omaha with a two-game sweep at Omaha a week earlier, then knocked off No. 4 seed UMD 3-2 in overtime in Thursday's opener of the Final Five. After that game, Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore insisted he didn't prefer what appeared to be the Beavers textbook style of slowing the game down and eliminating scoring chances, by saying he prefered a more up-tempo style. The Beavers came out and did exactly that Friday, outshooting Denver 18-10 in the first period and taking a 2-1 lead.

Serratore acknowledged that he couldn't remember his team getting 18 shots in a period before, and Bemidji's chances looked good when the third period opened 2-2 with the Beavers on a carryover 5-on-3 power play. But the Pioneers killed it off, then Nick Shore, Jarrod Mermis, Luke Salazar, and Kyle Ostrow scored in succession, spaced throughout the period from early until empty-net time. For the game, Bemidji State outshot Denver 38-32, but the surprising offensive display by the Beavers meant nothing in the face of Denver's methodically efficient attack.

"Having gone to Omaha, then winning against Duluth last night, we brainwashed ourselves into thinking we could win," said Serratore. "The bottom line is, the cream rose to the top, and that's Denver. They're one of the best teams in the country and they deserve their high ranking."

The Pioneers, who exasperated coach George Gwozdecky with a season-long tendency to have to play from behind, both solved and extended their habit against Bemidji State. In last weekend's playoff series against Minnesota State-Mankato, Denver trailed 2-0 after two periods before winning 4-2, and trailed 1-0 after two before gaining a sweep with a 2-1 comeback. Against Bemidji State, Kyle Ostrow gave Denver the first goal by deflecting in David Makowski's right point shot on a power play at 6:15 of the first period. The rare chance to play with the lead lasted barely three minutes.

Bemidji State got the tying goal when Jordan George tipped the puck ahead and raced after it, breaking past the defense on the right side, and cutting to the net to beat goalie Sam Brittain with a deft backhander high into the short side. The crowd of 12,903, obviously Bemidji State loyalists and those pulling for the ironic aspect of the Cinderella first-year team from Paul Bunyon country, came alive. "We were a different team after George's goal," said Serratore.

At 15:55 of the opening period, Aaron McLeod's shot from the left boards was blocked by Brittain, but the puck landed in the slot, and while two Denver defenders converged on Darcy Findlay, Radislav Illo, a freshman from Bystrica, Slovakia, moved in and lifted a shot over Brittain for a 2-1 Bemidji State lead.

Denver was on the power play early in the second period when John Ryder poked the puck ahead to Drew Shore, a sophomore center who has moved ahead of freshman scoring flash Jason Zucker in season points. Shore carried up the left side and, with the beneficial angle of being a right-handed shooter, fired a hard wrist shot from the faceoff circle glanced off the bottom of goaltender Dan Bakala's arm and landed behind him the net. That tied the game 2-2, and led to the crucial twist at the end of the middle period.

Chris Nutini was penalized for holding at 18:31, and Anthony Maiani followed his teammate to the box for hooking at 19:57. The period break might have aided Denver's penalty kill, but they had to finish the job through the first two minutes of the third period. "Sam Brittain made some tremendous saves early," said Denver coach George Gwozdecky, "and then getting through that 3-on-5 was a real emotional boost for us."

Exactly a minute after surviving the extended Beaver power play, Ostrow's corner faceoff win left Nick Shore with a chance from the right point, and when it was blocked, Shore moved in and sniped a high shot into the right corner to put the Pioneers ahead 3-2.

Bemidji State players insisted they weren't overly tired against well-rested Denver from the tough overtime victory over UMD the previous night. "I don't think we ran out of gas," said top gun Matt Read. "We didn't play our best last night, but all year we've been better in the second game of a series."

Nevertheless, the Pioneers immediately took the upper hand to capitalize on their chances. At 8:17, Matt Donovan attacked the net from the left corner, then swung behind the cage to try a wraparound. Bakala was braced for it, but Mermis, the left wing on Denver's all-freshman second line, banged the puck in to make it 4-2.

The Beavers were primed for a final attack, but at 15:56, Chris Nutini shot from the point and Salazar deflected it in the slot and the puck popped up and in for a 5-2 cushion. The cream was clearly rising by then, and when Serratore pulled Bakala early for an extra attacker, Ostrow skated out to near the center red line and casually sent a 100-footer into the open net.

"It was nice to score the first goal," said Kyle Ostrow. "But Bemidji came back hard. They were up, we came out hard in the third period. When we killed the 5-on-3, we were really up on the bench. We want to keep rolling so we can go hot into the national tournament. Last year, we didn't win a game here, and we were cool for the national tournament."

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