Backstopped by a career-high 38 saves from freshman goalie Hunter Miska, the top-ranked Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs skated away from their weekend duel at Denver with a series split, winning 3-1 Saturday night at Magness Arena.
The victory propelled UMD (11-3-2 overall; 8-2-0-0 NCHC) past the No. 2 Pioneers (12-3-3; 6-1-3-2 NCHC) and back into the NCHC's top spot, while also snapping Denver's 15-game unbeaten streak.
"A really good win for our team," said UMD head coach Scott Sandelin. "It was a grind-it-out kind of win. Two good teams. We battled hard and got a good win."
On a night when victory wasn't assured until the final horn, the Bulldog penalty kill played a leading role, denying Denver on all four of its power-play opportunities with a gutsy, hustling effort that had every winning ingredient.
"We blocked some shots tonight, and you have to do that," Sandelin said. "You've got to have guys willing to do that. Hunter (Miska) was sharp, too."
Just as they did one night earlier, the Bulldogs staked Miska to an early lead. Senior left winger Kyle Osterberg did the deed, collecting a clever indirect pass through the neutral zone from sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk, then cruising up the right side and squeezing a shot through Tanner Jaillet's legs at 4:01 of the first period. It was Osterberg's ninth goal of the season, pulling the senior wing within one goal of team-leading Alex Iafallo.
Skating with the lead, UMD was then whistled for three first-period penalties, but Miska and the Bulldogs were equal to the task, stymieing Denver and even drawing a Pioneers penalty while shorthanded, thanks to a hustling Dominic Toninato, who was hauled down by Denver's Blake Hillman during the Pioneers' second power play. It helped keep the Bulldogs on equal footing, figuratively and literally, and UMD closed the first period with a lead thanks in part to 12 Miska saves, including a sparkling left-pad kick stop to deny Denver's Will Butcher with two minutes remaining.
Another Denver power play midway through the second period tilted the momentum, but ultimately it was the Bulldogs who capitalized on a fortuitous break when Denver's Michael Davies shattered his stick on an attempted blast from the left point. The puck trickled to UMD junior center Sammy Spurrell, who led a quick counterattack with sophomore left winger Billy Exell. Junior defenseman Willie Raskob jumped into their wake as his penalty expired, but UMD had all the puck support it needed with a pair of fourth-line righties speeding into the Pioneers' zone. Spurrell fired from the left side and Exell drove to the net, smacking the rebound past Jaillet to extend UMD's lead to 2-0.
"You need four lines that can play," said Sandelin. "And those guys gave us a good game."
Denver answered three minutes later, with senior wing Evan Janssen stuffing a rebound past Miska to make it 2-1, but it was as close as the Pioneers would come, despite firing 58 shots, 12 of which were blocked by Bulldogs.
The third period included several Denver flurries and three glorious UMD scoring chances in tight against Jaillet, but neither team found the back of the net until UMD winger Joey Anderson, who ranks among the nation's top three in freshman scoring, added an empty-net goal at 19:00 to seal the victory for UMD.