The old adage is that defense wins championships.
Coming off a tough sweep against Omaha last weekend, the Denver Pioneers needed an answer, and they seemed to follow that adage. By showing both defense and some slick offense, they were able to get the response — and sweep — that they needed to perhaps get back into the conference race.
Joey LaLeggia scored and had an assist for the second straight night, and Tanner Jaillet made 28 saves in a brilliant game in net as No. 13 Denver used a three-goal third period to beat St. Cloud State 4-1 Saturday night at Magness Arena and complete a two-game NCHC sweep.
“Once we got into our rhythm in the second half of the game, we really showed what we’re capable of,” said Denver coach Jim Montgomery.
“It was really rewarding to see us turn the page from [the Omaha series] and put together a good 120 minutes,” said Pioneers center Daniel Doremus.
Nick Oliver scored his first goal of the season for the Huskies, but it wasn’t nearly enough to overcome a very tough Denver defense, despite improved overall play from Friday night.
“I thought we did some better things tonight,” said Oliver. “I thought our compete level was a little higher. It’s a tough loss.”
“We had a much better effort tonight,” said St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko. “But we just made colossal mistakes and it hurt.”
After a scoreless first period, the Pioneers opened the scoring in the second with Nolan Zajac’s fifth goal of the season. Matt Tabrum had possession of the puck along the goal line, and a great goal-mouth pass to Zajac was one-timed in past a diving Charlie Lindgren at 7:06 to make it 1-0. That score held up after two periods, as the Huskies continued to get bumped around by the relentless Denver defense.
“They played great defense,” said Motzko. “They were aggressive, they were beating us to the punch. You gotta give them a lot of credit, because they really smothered us.”
St. Cloud State finally woke up offensively two and a half minutes into the third period when Oliver was credited for his first goal of the season. The puck was somehow deflected in off Oliver and past Jaillet, but it gave the Huskies some much-needed life.
“We had a two-on-one at the net, and I immediately turned and took it toward the net and tried to slide it back door,” Oliver said of his goal. “I’m not sure what it hit, but we’ll take it. We scored a big momentum goal to tie the game.”
The tie didn’t last long however, as Denver got the lead back just over four minutes later. A rebound of a Matt VanVoorhis shot went right to Danton Heinen, who tapped it in on a backhand to put the Pioneers back ahead and re-energize the crowd of 5,048 at Magness Arena. The defense also got back on track, not allowing the Huskies to set up their forecheck and keeping their high-octane power play off the scoreboard. St. Cloud State was 0-5 on the man advantage Saturday night, and they went 0-6 for the weekend.
“Our power play was leaking oil,” Motzko said. “There were plays to be made there, and bobbled pucks off sticks, saucer passes up the middle … that wasn’t pretty.”
Brooks Bertsch of SCSU was penalized for hooking at 11:44, and Denver increased its lead to two with just under seven minutes remaining in the contest on the ensuing power play. Quentin Shore fed LaLeggia in the high slot, and LaLeggia sent it home for his eighth goal to make it 3-1 and essentially seal the game. Trevor Moore added one more insurance marker of his own with 5:15 left. It was a huge sweep for the Pioneers after the series against Omaha.
“We played really well at Omaha, and most times if we play that well we should win,” Doremus said. “This weekend we had some flaws, but we played really strong defensively and got the puck to the net.”
Denver leapfrogged the Huskies into fifth place in the conference standings after Friday night’s victory, and they sent St. Cloud State into seventh place by completing the sweep. The Pioneers (6-5 NCHC, 13-7-1 overall) will travel to Oxford next weekend for a battle with the fourth place Miami RedHawks.
“Hopefully we can carry momentum forward into next weekend’s series,” said Montgomery.
Lindgren stopped 26 shots for the Huskies, who fell to 4-7-1 in the NCHC and 9-12-1 overall with the loss. They will host sixth place Western Michigan next weekend.