Denver is headed back to their first Frozen Four since winning it all in Columbus in 2005, after a 6-3 victory over Ferris State that was a much tighter game than the final score would indicate.
The Pioneers struck first when Danton Heinen scored on a rebound off a Dylan Gambrell rush But in what would become a continuing theme on the night, Ferris State had an answer when Gerald Mayhew evened the score on a breakaway goal almost ten minutes later.
The Pioneers took a 2-1 lead toward the end of the first period on a wicked wrist shot off a face-off by Dylan Gambrell. The Pioneers looked like they would take that lead to the locker room, but Ferris State's Corey Mackin tied the game with 20 seconds remaining in the period when he deflected a pass off a Denver defender into the net.
Denver's Trevor Moore scored the only goal of the second period when Blake Hillman sent him in alone on a breakaway against Ferris State goalie Darren Smith and he buried it for a 3-2 lead.
A Kyle Schempp power play goal in the third period tied the game at three apiece. But in the other continuing theme of the night, Denver's Pacific Rim line of Trevor Moore, Dylan Gambrell, and Danton Heinen, combined with defenseman Blake Hillman was too much for Ferris State to match. Gambrell created a turnover in the Ferris State zone and fed the puck to Heinen. Heinen found Hillman all alone in the high slot and the rookie defenseman scored his second goal of the regional, and third career goal for the game-winner with 4:32 remaining.
Nolan Zajac iced the game 25 seconds later with an insurance goal, and Quentin Shore tacked on a late power play goal to make the final score look lopsided.
Ferris State's surprising run ends one win shy of second ever trip to the Frozen Four, and they finish the season with a 20-15-6 overall record. Denver advances to the Frozen Four in Tampa, where they will meet conference rival North Dakota in the evening semifinal.
Notes and Thoughts:
-An outstanding effort from Ferris State tonight, but Moore, Gambrell, and Heinen were just too much for them all night. Their speed presented a major problem for a Ferris State. Gambrell beat a Ferris State for a clean zone entry leading to the first goal, and those clean zone entries and then a lot of time spent chasing them around the defensive zone. That line maybe didn't get the attention of Michigan's top line or North Dakota's top line, but they're hot play has been the reason for Denver's incredible second half run and why they're playing for a national title in two weeks.
-Rookie defenseman and Elk River, Minnesota native Blake Hillman was named the region's Most Outstanding Player with two assists and the game-winning goal. Hillman is an interesting player, in that he was good, but not super highly-regarded as a youngster growing up in Minnesota. It was a surprise when he left high school early for Dubuque of the USHL, but he really took off in the USHL, earned an opportunity in Denver, and this weekend was a real breakout for him. He was aggressive in the offensive end, jumping into plays and creating offense.
-I wouldn't say I was skeptical of Dylan Gambrell getting drafted this summer, but I wasn't as high on him as some others prior to this weekend. He was great here though, and I would not be shocked to see him be a mid-round pick. Early in the season, he looked like a product of Heinen and Moore, but he was the one driving the play tonight in a lot of instances. Blake Hillman might be another player worth looking at in his final year of eligibility. He's always been kind of a quiet, non-descript guy, but if he can add the offensive side of the game that he showed tonight, he's an intriguing player because he's such a smart, solid hockey player.
-Ferris State got a couple lucky breaks in this game to keep it as close as they did for so long. They were dominated in the first period, getting outshot 15-3, and out-attempted at even strength 20-8. But the Bulldogs got a break late in the period when a deflected pass ended up in the Denver net.
-After that first period, Ferris State came back and played Denver even in the second period, despite giving up the only goal. Once Kyle Schempp tied the game for Ferris State, the Bulldogs had a few chances(a very blatant missed trip by Denver now stands out significantly), but for the most part, Denver controlled the third period by a wide margin, and it felt like only a matter of time before the Pacific Rim stuck again.
-Ferris State's offense tried to rely heavily today on hitting forwards coming out of the zone with long stretch passes. It worked once on Mayhew's breakaway goal when a Denver defender tripped on the play, but otherwise, the Pioneers did a good job defending it.
-One controversial play came in the second period with Denver up 3-2. A puck rolled behind Denver goalie Tanner Jaillet in the crease and it appeared that Denver's Gambrell played the puck with his glove, which could have potentially been called a penalty shot. Closer review showed that it probably wasn't, but more disappointing is that the officials weren't even allowed to review the play. There are 14 different types of plays in the rulebook that officials can use review for, and almost all of them are to take goals off the board. With scoring so difficult to come by, why not also allow something that could bring some offense to the game?
-Ferris State loses seven seniors off this year's team, including four on the blue line that will be difficult to replace, but they'll add a couple USHL veterans and a likely NHL Draft pick in Cameron Clarke. If one or two of those guys become contributors right away, I'll stick with what I said about next year's Ferris State looking like the 2014 team that won the WCHA regular season and came very close to the Frozen Four.
-Heading to Tampa, Denver seems pretty locked in right now. I don't know if that means anything in two weeks, but the reason they've played so well in the second half is how committed they've been to following their process as a team. They seem like a confident group right now.
-We'll talk about this further at a later date because it's too important not to, but the crowd for this game was an embarrassment. 2799 was the announced and that was a tickets sold, which included many St. Cloud State fans who didn't use their tickets for the second day. This game had absolutely no atmosphere, which is such a shame considering what is at stake. It needs fixed.
Shots on goal: DU: 15-13-14-42 FSU: 3-11-7-21
Even strength shot attempts: DU: 20-18-18-56-60.9% FSU: 8-19-9-36-39.1%
Prime scoring area: DU: 9-10-10-29 FSU: 2-8-3-13
What do the numbers tell us?
The second period was very even hockey, but ultimately, Denver dominated the first and third period, and despite catching a bad bounce on that second goal, ended up with the result they probably deserved.
5:34 Danton Heinen from Dylan Gambrell and Blake Hillman (power play) 1-0 Denver
Gambrell broke into the Ferris State zone with speed, beating a Ferris State defender for a clear shot. Smith stopped him with his pad, but that left a rebound for a wide open Danton Heinen for the goal.
15:13 Gerald Mayhew from Tyler Dorantes and Kyle Schempp 1-1 tie
Dorantes made a long stretch pass from deep in his own end to Mayhew at the center ice line. A DU defender slipped, freeing Mayhew for a breakaway and he beat Jaillet with a wrist shot on the break.
18:40 Dylan Gambrell from Danton Heinen 2-1 Denver
Heinen won a face-off at the left face-off dot back to Gambrell at the top of the circle. Gambrell fired a high, quick wrist shot that beat Smith for the goal.
19:40 Corey Mackin from Gerald Mayhew and Simon Denis (power play) 2-2 tie
Mackin had the puck at the bottom of the right circle. He tried to fire a cross-crease pass to a teammate, but the puck deflected off a DU defender's skate and into the goal.
2:49 Trevor Moore from Blake Hillman and Matt VanVoorhis 3-2 Denver
Hillman made a nice cross-ice pass in the neutral zone to Moore on the left side, giving Moore a breakaway from the blue line in on Smith. Moore shot high to the blocker side for the goal.
7:17 Kyle Schempp from Corey Mackin and Gerald Mayhew (power play) 3-3 tie
Ferris State worked the puck around the perimeter with the man advantage. They worked it behind the net, before Mackin made a nice pass out to Schempp in the slot who made no mistake with the prime scoring opportunity.
15:28 Blake Hillman from Danton Heinen and Dylan Gambrell 4-3 Denver
Heinen had the puck just below the right face-off dot and made a nice cross ice pass to Hillman walking down the high slot. He beat Smith from just above the face-off dot with a high wrist shot.
15:53 Nolan Zajac from Quentin Shore and Troy Terry 5-3 Denver
25 seconds after Hillman scored, Zajac snuck in front the point and lifted a nice pass from Shore over Smith for the goal.
17:33 Quentin Shore from Evan Janssen and Troy Terry (power play) 6-3 Denver
During a major power play, Janssen put the puck on net and Shore cleaned up the rebound into an open net.