For the first time in the Western Classic Tournament’s history, the Colorado Buffaloes hockey team advances to the championship game.
The Buffs will play the Colorado State Rams at the EPIC Ice Arena in Fort Collins at 2 p.m. Sunday.
However, CU may have wished it headed into the game off of a prettier win after nearly blowing a three-goal lead in a 5-4 victory over Utah State on Saturday at the CU Rec Center.
The game started off with copious amounts of energy as both teams established their physicality early on, throwing multiple checks in hopes the other club would fold. The game stayed scoreless until CU converted on a power-play goal midway through the first period. Forward Conor Williams won the faceoff and the puck went directly to David Starr, who then hammered a shot past the glove of helpless Utah State goalie Dan Cornelius.
“Me and Conor work on that one in practice all the time,” Starr commented. “If he wins the faceoff, I just try to get a shot on net. It worked out for us that time.”
Starr managed to convert a couple minutes later on a power play yet again, this time shooting the puck past Cornelius’s left shoulder on a backhand from the left faceoff circle after a cross ice feed from Williams.
The Buffs went into the first intermission up 2-0 after a well-executed period.
In the second period, the Aggies came out hard and fast, but CU goaltender Kevin Litinsky was up to the challenge. Litinsky made timely, solid saves throughout the first half of the period in order to preserve the shutout and allow his team to regain energy.
That energy translated into a goal for the gold and black after Williams fed the puck across the ice to Sean Carpenter, who hammered a slap shot from the right faceoff circle past Cornelius.
Finding itself down three goals, Utah State fought back. The Aggies increased their physical pressure, which led to big hits and bad penalties.
Their game plan worked, however, and the Aggies managed to squeeze a lucky one past Litinsky near the end of the period. The two teams went into the second intermission with a score of 3-1.
In the third period, penalties started to pile up as did the bad blood between the teams.
“When you find yourself down by that many goals, teams are known to get kind of chippy,” Williams said. “They are just trying to get in to your head, trying to force you to take a bad penalty so they can get back in to the game.
Despite the increased physicality coming from the Aggies, CU initially stayed strong. Scott Portnoy restored CU’s three-goal lead when he snuck a puck past Cornelius’s right arm.
But the Aggies wouldn’t give up without a fight. After a large scrum in front of the CU net, Utah State got its own scrappy goal to cut the deficit in half.
The Buffs made it 5-2 when A.J. Koller scored a power play, the team’s third of the night.
It was at this point that the game started to get out of hand. A couple of minutes after the goal, the Aggies’ Brendan MacDonald ran a Buff into the boards after the whistle, resulting in a large pile-up that took a few minutes to sort out. MacDonald was ejected and had to be forcibly removed from the ice by a linesman after receiving a normal minor penalty as well as a game misconduct.
Afterwards, the blood started to boil for the Buffaloes. They took bad penalties and ended up pinned in their zone near the end of the game.
The Aggies saw their chance and ran with it. In the dying minutes of the game, Utah State scored two quick goals to close within one and almost put another puck past Litinsky, but it hit the left post with 30 seconds remaining.
When the final buzzer sounded, many Buffs were relieved, but not thrilled with the win.
“That’s why I’m not happy,” head coach Ken Fikis said. “There are guys moping on the bench and whining at the refs, chirping at the other team. Just go out there and play hockey. They played hard for 55 minutes and then just quit playing.”
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Adam Alberti at Adam.Alberti@colorado.edu.