No. 4 Bulldogs power their way to a victory over No. 7 Denver Pioneers

Junior wing Riley Tufte (27) passes the puck Friday night at AMSOIL Arena. Photo: Terry Norton

Junior wing Riley Tufte (27) passes the puck Friday night at AMSOIL Arena. Photo: Terry Norton

The Pioneers have been the biggest thorn in the Bulldog’s side since the NCAA Frozen Four title game, going 7-1-0 against UMD including a 5-0 record during the 2017-18 season.

The two teams split the series earlier this season (Nov. 16-17) in Denver. Denver pulled out a 2-0 victory in the first game, snapping the Bulldogs eight game win streak. UMD would rally the following night with a key 4-3 overtime victory.

“I think once we started to get to playing the game the way we need to play it, we got better,” head coach Scott Sandelin said.

Denver would strike first in this game when Finnish sophomore forward Jaakko Heikkinen wrapped around the net to find senior defenseman Les Lancaster for the wide open shot just above the right face-off zone. The puck went right over UMD goalie Hunter Shepard's right shoulder to take a 1-0 lead.

Drawing first blood has been key for the Bulldogs this season, with a 16-1-0 record when they score the first goal of the game.

“We knew that no matter what the score was that we were going to have to battle,” sophomore Nick Swaney said. “I thought it was a good response from our whole lineup, everyone was working and once we got that first one we didn’t look back from there.”

The Bulldogs would answer two minutes later when captain Parker Mackay’s shot bounces off Denver goalie Filip Larsson’s glove, then center Justin Richards connected on the rebound.

Halfway through the period, the Bulldogs dodged a major bullet when Scott Perunovich turned the puck over at the blue line in UMD’s zone. Denver freshman Tyler Ward was wide open down the middle and shot it straight at Shepard.

It was another tough sequence for Perunovich a few minutes later. He missed an open shot high, while in-line with the middle of the face-off zones, but luckily no damage done.

The Bulldogs have been the best team in the nation in the second period. Their +26 goal differential (42-16) is tops in the nation and have accounted for exactly 50 percent of the team’s total goals scored this season.

That trend continued when Swaney connected with his 12th goal of the season off the behind-the-net feed from freshman Noah Cates.

The nation’s top penalty kill did its thing in the period, killing two Denver penalties in the quarter (there were none in the first period).

The Bulldogs piled it on in the third period.

Their defense was locked-down, not letting Denver be comfortable for most of the game.

Halfway into the third, Justin Richards netted his second goal of the game off a breakaway. Freshman Cole Koepke led Richards perfectly and then put the sauce on the goalie to score the backhanded goal to extend the lead to 3-1.

“I saw some room,” Richards said of his second goal, “and I took off. I was yelling for the puck, [Cole] Koeps made a really nice pass to me. Just put it on my backhand and put it in.”

The Bulldogs would later add another on Tanner Laderoute’s seventh goal of the season. The play was under review after Jackson Cates’ shot hit the top of the crossbar and did not get past the goal line.

Denver would add one late from sophomore Ryan Barrow on an open net goal off a rebound.

With 2:22 left in the game, Denver pulled their goalie only to have Koepke score on an empty net to make the final score 5-2.

“You need everyone to beat a team like Denver,” head coach Scott Sandelin said. “[We’ve] got to follow it up tomorrow.”

The Bulldogs (18-7-2) return to AMSOIL Saturday for the second game of the series against Denver (15-7-4), with puck drop at 7:10 p.m.