When the final seconds ticked off the clock, the stands and bench erupted in celebration for the CU victory, while the CSU fans hung their head in defeat.
With the emotion that was displayed, it appeared that venue was Folsom Field or Invesco Field at Mile High, and not the CU Rec Center.
Freshman forward David Starr scored two goals, including the game winner with 6:43 to play, to lead the Colorado Buffaloes’ club hockey team squeeze out a 7-5 win over rival Colorado State on Saturday night.
The game’s implications stretched far beyond the intense in-state rivalry; CU (first place) and CSU (second place) were fighting for the number one seed in the West region when nationals for Division II hockey are played from March 17 through 20.
Add on the fact that CU led the season series 2-1 going into the game, with a chance to take it outright with a win, and you can see why there was a packed house at the Rec Center.
“It’s bigger than this team, this year, it’s huge for our entire program,” said junior forward Andrew Gillis, who scored CU’s second goal of the game. “It sets us on the right pace for nationals, and it definitely sets us up well with a number one seed for the tournament.”
The top two seeds in each of the four regions (Northeast, Southeast, Central and West) receive automatic berths, and teams ranked three through ten compete in regional tournaments for the final two spots.
By clinching the top seed the Buffs can now focus on the remainder of their regular season schedule and will have over a month off before they head to Simsbury, Connecticut for the big dance.
As for the game itself, it didn’t disappoint in its excitement for the crowd that came out.
CU started the fireworks with a powerplay goal when A.J. Koller poked one past CSU goalie Mike Dlugos to put the Buffs on top.
But the Rams answered right back, and Parker Harrison’s back-to-back goals gave CSU the lead 2-1. Then came the equalizer by Gillis, who took a nice pass from his linemate Nick Carey and stuffed the puck home.
The second period was all Buffs, with goals by Mark Viau and Starr, and Colorado goalie Kevin Litinsky shut out the Rams to give CU a two-goal lead, 4-2, heading into the second intermission. But as was the case in almost all of the CU-CSU games this season, no lead was safe.
Just as CU did in their first meeting in the Pepsi Center, the Rams came out as the aggressor to start the third and scored back-to-back goals in the first 44 seconds to tie it up at four.
CU head coach Ken Fikis and his staff had some very simple advice for his players after the rough start to the period.
“We told them we weren’t behind, we were still tied, the next goal was going to decide who’d win the game,” Fikis said. “We said whoever works hardest the last ten minutes is going to win the game and that’s what happened.”
The Buffs took the advice to heart, and at the 15:21 mark forward Conor Williams, who was tied for the team lead (with Starr) in points with 33 coming into the game, took a pass from freshman J.P. Park and found the back of the net with another powerplay goal to retake the lead for Colorado.
CSU again answered with a goal by senior Dale Dinnebeck to knot it up at 5 with 12:23 to play. Both teams and their fans were on edge to see if the stalemate would be broken or if the game would have to be decided in overtime.
Then Starr, after taking a cross-ice pass from Williams, fired home a slapshot with 6:43 to play in what proved to be the game-winner. But the game was far from over, after Dlugos ran to the bench for the final 90 seconds, the Rams played 6-on-5 hockey in a last ditch effort to knot things up.
“That was the first time all season that our whole bench has stood up for the last two minutes. We were into it, everyone’s hearts were beating, it was definitely intense,” Gillis said.
After multiple face-offs and diving saves by Litinksy, Viau was able to wrestle the puck from a Ram at the blue line and send it all the way down the ice and into the empty net to seal the deal with 5.9 seconds left and send the crowd and CU bench into rejoicing mode.
Coach Fikis was especially proud of how his team never lost their resolve despite letting their lead slip away multiple times.
“We have a tendency to get leads and then blow them. Tonight we almost did that, but the kids decided it was time to play. It was really great on the bench, they were all helping each other, and like I say, you’re only as good as our fourth line, and our fourth line was great tonight. I’m really proud of them.”
The freshman Park, who has played in every game for the Buffaloes this season, upped his point total to 22 on the year with his assist, and now fully realizes the intensity this in-state rivalry has with each slugfest that is played.
“They’re definitely our biggest rivals, and even though I haven’t been here in previous years, I know how big it is. Definitely biggest group of fans yet and best game of the year,” Park said.
Colorado (21-6) has four games left in the regular season, and will host Northern Colorado at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 12 at the Rec Center.
Contact CU-Independent Staff Writer David Starcer at David.firstname.lastname@example.org.