Denver Pioneers advance to Frozen Four final with 3-2 win over Michigan Wolverines in OT

BOSTON — Denver defeated Michigan 3-2 in overtime of their men’s Frozen Four semifinal on Thursday, advancing to Saturday night’s ice hockey national championship game in Boston’s TD Garden.

Carter Savoie’s goal with 5:07 remaining in the first overtime won the game for the Pioneers.

The Pioneers will face the winner of the other semifinal between Minnesota and Minnesota State. It’s the first championship game appearance for Denver since 2018, when it won the title.

Denver, the No. 4 seed in the tournament, is seeking its ninth men’s hockey championship in program history, which would tie Michigan for the most in NCAA Division I history.

The overtime winner came as a result of a sloppy play by Michigan in its own zone. The Wolverines tried to transition to offense before securing the puck. Denver collected the turnover, and leading scorer Bobby Brink’s pass from the right corner was converted by Savoie at the front of the net, sending the Pioneers into a celebration and the top-seeded Wolverines home.

The game between the Pioneers and Wolverines wasn’t the offensive shootout many expected. Instead, it was an intense battle between two talented and deep teams that extended past regulation.

Denver took a 1-0 lead with 8:38 left in the first period on a goal by Brett Stapley, his 17th of the season. Defenseman Justin Lee shot the puck from the point. With a Pioneers player on his doorstep, goalie Erik Portillo deflected the shot to the slot. That’s where Stapley collected it, and with Portillo colliding with his center Matty Beniers, tucked into the open net for the Denver lead.

The Pioneers scored a goal before Michigan recorded a shot on goal, with the Wolverines finally putting a puck on Denver goalie Magnus Chrona with 3:56 left in the first.

Michigan head coach Mel Pearson’s message to his players after practice on Wednesday was “focus on the start and be ready.” The first period ended with Denver having the advantage, and the Pioneers were 20-1-1 when scoring first and 15-0-1 when leading after the first period.

The Wolverines knotted the game at 1-1 with 15:57 left in the second period on a Jimmy Lambert goal. Right wing Nolan Moyle made a nifty play to control the puck on a zone entry, sparking a Michigan cycle with senior linemates Garrett Van Wyhe and Lambert. The puck eventually returned to Nolan behind the Denver net, and he fed Lambert in front for the game-tying goal, his 6th of the season.

Michigan pushed for the next few minutes of the period but had trouble executing, including four offside plays and an odd-man rush negated when Portillo lost his helmet after making a save. Denver finished the period with a 16-9 shot advantage, as the Pioneers didn’t convert on the teams’ one power play opportunity of the period.

The Pioneers took the lead with 14:24 left in the third period. The puck was cycled back to defenseman Mike Benning at the right point, who floated a wrist shot that was deflected by Wright past Portillo. It was the senior winger’s 22 goal of the season in 40 games.

But Michigan tied the game at 2-2 with 10:51 left in the third. The play started with a sprawling shot block by Mark Estapa on a shot by Denver defenseman Antti Tuomisto. Michigan’s Michael Pastujov sped down the wing. His pass to the middle of the ice was deflected, but sophomore forward Thomas Bordeleau smartly slowed his progress in order to tap home the bouncing puck for the tying tally.

The Wolverines killed off a Denver power play after forward Brendan Brisson’s boarding penalty. With 5:31 left in the game, freshman forward Mackie Samoskevich was whistled for holding, drawing boos from the considerable number of Michigan fans at the stands. But the Wolverines killed that off as well.

The loss sends Michigan into an offseason of uncertainty. The Wolverines have seven players who were selected in the first round of the NHL draft, including four of the first five picks in the 2021 draft. Defenseman Owen Power, the No. 1 overall pick, is expected to sign with the Buffalo Sabres after the NCAA tournament. Pearson also does not have a contract beyond this season.

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo