By John Gilbert for WCHA.com
SAINT PAUL, MN. --- As a 20-goal scorer, Denver's Jason Zucker might have been surprised to find himself wide open at 2:18 of overtime, but when Joey LaLeggia got the puck to him Thursday afternoon, Zucker immediately produced his 21st goal, lifting the Pioneers to a 3-2 victory and bringing a sudden ending to Michigan Tech's inspired playoff in the first game of the Red Baron Final Five.
The victory sends Denver (24-12-4) into Friday's first semifinal at 2 p.m. against season runner-up Minnesota-Duluth (24-8-6).
"There was a point when thought Duluth was the best team in the country and would run away with the league title," said Denver coach George Gwozdecky. "They are the team to beat, not only in this tournament, but the next one."
That would be the NCAA tournament, the target of all six teams at the Final Five. Michigan Tech (16-19-4) had to win the tournament to have a chance, via the automatic berth among the 16 selections. And the Huskies gave it their best shot, gaining a 2-1 lead early on the first shift of the third period and trusting the brilliant play of senior Josh Robinson, who continued to play as well as any goaltender in the WCHA throughout the game.
Denver outshot Tech 44-29, but Robinson's outstanding play, and 41 saves, gave the Huskies a chance. But he had no chance on the tying goal, with 4:32 left, or on Zucker's game-winner. On that play, Nick Shore tried to get a shot through but it was blocked by congestion in the slot. Defenseman Joe LaLeggia, a freshman, gained possession, and moved toward the right circle to find an opening, while Zucker was off to the left of the net, uncovered.
Zucker saw LaLeggia move and said, "He made a great play, and I called for the puck. He put it right on my stick."
Robinson said: "I saw their guy move to the top of the circle, and then I saw the puck go across, so I tried to push over as hard as I could. But he put it in."
Michigan Tech was in legitimate running for a top six home-ice position until the final weekend of regular-season play, when the Huskies lost 5-2 and 2-0 at Colorado College and wound up eighth -- one point out of seventh and two out of sixth. Undaunted, Tech stayed out in Colorado Springs and opened the playoffs with a complete reversal, beating Colorado College 3-1 and 4-3 in overtime, to reach the Final Five for the first time in five years. Tech then came to Saint Paul, extending their March-on-the road stretch to 15 days.
Denver, which was third, one point behind second-place Minnesota-Duluth, was upset by Wisconsin 1-0 and needed to come back to win two games, claiming the decisive third game 3-2 in overtime, to reach Xcel Center.
So it was obvious that season records mean nothing in the playoffs, and Michigan Tech proved the point again in Thursday's opening game of the Final Five.
"We had some momentum coming in here," said Brett Olson, Tech's captain from Superior, Wis. "We talked about how we wanted to bring pride back to our program, and I think we did that. I'm proud of our guys, but when you get into overtime, anything can happen."
The Pioneers took an early 1-0 lead, when freshman Ty Loney got to the front of the net to one-time a pass from behind the goal by Drew Shore at 3:50. It was the 10th goal of the season for Loney.
Midway through the first period, the Huskies tied the game when freshman defenseman pried the puck loose on the boards and fed ahead for fellow-freshman Blake Pietila, who broke between the Denver defensemen and had a breakaway. At full speed, Pietila gave Juho Olkinuora a deke and shot into the left edge at 10:45.
Tech outshot Denver 12-10 in the first, and while the Pioneers came back to outshoot Tech 16-6 in the second period, Robinson was outstanding in holding the score at 1-1, and when the puck dropped for the third period, Tech went on the attack.
Jordan Baker fought for possession on the left boards and sent the puck ahead to Ryan Furne, who skated toward the net from a wide angle to the left and snapped a shot that glanced off Olkinuora's arm and into the short side of the net at 0:18. It was the 10th goal of the season for Furne, a sophomore who grew up the Saint Paul suburb of Oakdale, less than 10 miles from Xcel Center.
Tech, in fact, was outshot again during the third period, but had a couple of excellent chances for a third goal. But moments after Olkimuora survived a Tech attack, Denver broke back the other way on a 3-on-2. Drew Shore carried deep up the right side and slid a pass back to the slot to Loney, who quickly relayed it to the left circle, where Luke Salazar put it away at 15:28.
"It's a game of inches," said Tech's first-year coach Mel Pearson, who left a long-standing role as assistant and then associate head coach at Michigan to return to lead his alma mater. "We had a chance to make it 3-1, then they come right back and score to tie it up."
After a game of broken plays and not much flow, the tying goal was on a play that couldn't have been diagrammed more smoothly.
"Drew made a good play to get the puck to Ty, and I didn't know if he was going to shoot or pass," said Salazar. "When he passed, I just tried to shoot as hard as I could. We've been down or tied in the third period a lot in these last few games, so we didn't want to change our game plan. I was just lucky to be in the right place."
Drew Shore, who assisted on the first two Denver goals and made the play to start the tying goal, said: "He called himself lucky, but after all the big goals he's scored for us this year, I don't know if I've ever played with anyone who can score as many game-winning goals."
Strong words from the older, junior half of Denver's Shore Brothers, because Drew Shore has 21 goals and is second in the country with seven game-winners.