COLUMBUS, Ohio — Sometimes, someone just has your number. For the 2004-2005 Colorado College Tigers, the team that held all the right numbers at the right times was the Denver Pioneers.
Thursday’s 6-2 Pioneers win was the third straight decision in Denver’s favor against CC, and that streak represented three of the biggest games of the season for the intrastate rivals. On March 4, one night after capturing a share of the MacNaughton Cup with a 3-0 win and skating it around their own World Arena, the Tigers watched the Pioneers return the favor in Denver’s Magness Arena when a 5-0 DU victory made the teams regular-season co-champions.
Two weeks later, the Pioneers beat the Tigers 1-0 for the WCHA Final Five championship, and Thursday’s win completed Denver’s triple crown.
The common thread among these games is threefold: Denver’s advantage as the “home” team, the play of Pioneer freshman goaltender Peter Mannino, and Colorado College’s trouble adjusting from Olympic to regulation ice.
Until Brian Salcido scored for the Tigers in the second period Thursday to make it 3-1, CC had not registered a goal against the Pioneers for 153:52, dating back to that March 3 win in Colorado Springs, when Hobey Baker finalist Marty Sertich scored at 15:57 in the third.
That’s over 150 minutes of shutting down the line of Sertich, Brett Sterling — the country’s two leading scorers — and Scott Polaski, a feat the Pioneers accomplished in each of their last three games by matching that line at will.
“They match up very, very well when they have last change,” said CC head coach Scott Owens. “They have three outstanding defensive defensemen that they can put out there, they get the matchups with Gabe [Gauthier], who is an outstanding hockey player, and they have old senior wingers that know how to play the game, so there’s less room.”
One of the “old” wingers matched with the top Tiger line is Pioneer Jon Foster, who played left wing to sophomore Adrian Veideman’s right, with Geoff Paukovich centering. That’s the line that checked the Sertich-Sterling-Polaski combo today.
“Every single time we had a line out, they had the exact line out that they wanted,” said Owens. “In this six-game series, the team with the last change has won each time.”
The second seemingly-insurmountable obstacle for the Tigers against the Pioneers was freshman goaltender Peter Mannino. Mannino and sophomore Glenn Fisher have split time in the Denver net all season, but Mannino has beaten the Tigers three games running. Fisher was between the pipes when CC hoisted the MacNaughton Cup.
“You know … there are a lot of issues we discussed, both pro and con regarding Peter and Glenn and who should play in today’s game,” said Denver head coach George Gwozdecky. “I think it probably came down to the decisive factor of Peter having more success against this opponent than Glenn has had.”
In two of these three contests, the Tigers outshot the Pioneers — in the national semifinal, significantly so, 43-29 — but Mannino remained a difficult puzzle to solve, stopping 97 of 99 total CC shots he faced.
“In the first two games, we didn’t a good job of getting to Mannino and this time we did at times but the shots we were taking weren’t as quality,” said Tiger captain Mark Stuart.
“We did a much better job of getting to their net [today],” said Polaski. “We didn’t have a very good shooting game. We did get there but we didn’t shoot the puck well when we got there.”
The third common factor is the regulation-size ice surface. While all three games were played in different arenas — March 4 on Denver’s home ice, the Final Five game in St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, Thursday’s at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus — all three venues required of the Tigers an adjustment they just couldn’t seem to make, to a surface area narrower than their Olympic-size home sheet.
Owens hinted that the narrower rink worked to DU’s advantage on the prolific power play, which accounted for all six Pioneer goals Thursday. “That’s a great shooting team. They picked the corners and they got pucks through and they changed the shooting angles and they were outstanding at it.”
Owens remarked about CC’s difficulty with the smaller ice surface the last time the Tigers were in Columbus, to christen the inaugural Ohio Hockey Classic in Nationwide Arena, Dec. 29-30. It took the Tigers a while to adjust, and they settled for a shootout win after tying Ohio State 2-2 in the title game, a game Owens clearly would have preferred to win.
“It’s different from what we play on, 30 games on Olympic sheets through the course of the year,” said Owens after that tie. “Plus, it was just a tough battle. There was some adversity and things we had to fight through.”
The adversity to which Owens alluded was the officiating by the all-CCHA crew headed by referee Mark Wilkins. After the game, Owens noted that Colorado College, one of the nation’s least-penalized teams, had to contend with eight calls.
Thursday, history seemed to repeat itself for CC, as the Tigers repeatedly found themselves in the penalty box again, with a CCHA crew officiating, this time headed by referee Matt Shegos.
“Obviously when you have to kill off [that many] power-play opportunities and you’re one the least-penalized teams in the country, it throws you off a bit,” said Owens.
Take away the Denver line change advantage, Mannino’s play, and the ice surface, and this game still came down to one thing: Denver scored six goals, CC two.
“They capitalized on opportunities and we didn’t, and the score tonight, they scored a lot of goals on us, but I think in the previous games, especially the one in the Final Five, there weren’t many chances for either team,” said Stuart. “They capitalized on the few they had, and tonight they capitalized on a lot of them that they had, and that was the difference.”