DENVER — The Denver Pioneers are glad they were home for the holidays.
After defeating Boston University 4-1 in the first game of their post-Thanksgiving matches on Friday night, the Pioneers cruised to a 6-1 win against Massachusetts on Saturday.
Thanks to the stellar all-around performance of defenseman Brett Skinner — who had four points on the night — and forward Gabe Gauthier (two goals), Denver pounced on Minuteman mistakes. Despite being without standout Paul Stastny (due to an undisclosed injury), the Pioneers played well in all three zones to come away with the win.
“All in all I was pleased with the game and happy with this weekend,” said DU coach George Gwozdecky. “We’ve had a pretty challenging schedule … the toughest schedule in the country. It’s good knowing the kind of team we can put on the ice and what we’re capable of.”
The Minutemen came into Saturday’s game having not yet won on the road this year (0-5-1). Starting goaltender Michael Waidlich had not won a game for his career. And to make matters worse, Massachusetts lost to Colorado College the previous night, 3-1.
“I think we know more about our team then we did before this weekend,” said UMass head coach Don Cahoon of his team’s weekend losses in Colorado. “This will help us in the long run.”
Both teams began looking sluggish, but the Minutemen struck first at the 5:41 mark on a goal from freshman defenseman David Leaderer. Massachusetts scoring leader Matt Anderson (7-12-19) won a faceoff that popped out to Leaderer just above the left circle, and Leaderer unloaded a blazing slapshot that beat DU netminder Peter Mannino.
Denver tried to convert on two straight power plays, but the Minutemen put bodies on the Denver forwards and Waidlich held firm with two great saves to keep the Pioneers off the board. But Denver capitalized on a fluke chance soon after, when the puck was deflected in the air near the UMass zone.
Players from both squads attempted to bat the puck down and gain control. Instead, the puck dropped to the ice on the blueline in front of Pioneer forward Jeff Drummond, who broke in alone on Waidlich and wristed a shot into the net to tie the game.
Though Denver couldn’t connect on its first power-play chances, the Pioneers got their second goal while killing a late penalty. Skinner took a clearing pass through the Minuteman defense, and Denver winger J.D. Corbin beat three Massachusetts skaters to the puck behind the net and fed a wide-open Adrian Veideman in front of Waidlich to give DU the 2-1 advantage at 15:45 of the first period.
The Pioneers continued their trend of outshooting their opponent at home, but didn’t have an overwhelming sense of momentum going into the second period despite the shorthanded goal.
But once again the bounces went DU’s way as the teams skated 4-on-4. A bad pass by UMass defenseman Mark Matheson in his own zone was intercepted by Skinner, who charged in and drove a quick wrist shot on the short side by Waidlich at 6:15 of the second as the Pioneers went up 3-1.
“For every night that things don’t go right, there’s a night where everything goes right,” said Skinner, whose four-point effort was the best of his career. “The puck bounced to the right places to the right guys tonight.”
Gwozdecky praised Skinner for his outburst on Saturday, and felt that the junior from Manitoba has gotten better with every season.
“[Skinner] has always been an offensive defenseman. It’s hard to believe that a defenseman can break up a D-to-D pass and score.” Gwozdecky said. “But his defensive skills have improved also … when you team him up with the talents of [defenseman] Matt Carle, that creates a great blueline for us.”
The Minutemen were able to control the puck for a short time in the second, but a string of penalties and bad passes in their own zone stalled their efforts. With defenseman Marvin Degon in the box for UMass, Denver set up a pretty power-play sequence to go up 4-1 in the waning minutes of the second.
Skinner again was a factor, getting a nice feed from Jeff Drummond, then launching a low wrist shot from the back line that was tipped in by DU junior center Gabe Gauthier for the three-goal lead.
“We need to recognize each situation we’re in,” said Cahoon, who mentioned the smaller ice of Magness Arena as one reason for Massachusetts’ mistakes in its own end. “The will to work and the discipline to take care of the details has to be there. As much respect as I have for Denver … we got away from our system tonight and made some mistakes.”
A flurry of shots from the Minutemen in the final minute of the second was stopped by a fantastic effort by Mannino and his defensemen in front of the Denver net. Mannino (4-2-0) didn’t face many shots but was solid when tested by the hard-skating Massachusetts forwards.
“Mannino played great tonight,” said Skinner of Denver’s freshman netminder. “[Mannino's play] was even more important that the goals we scored.”
The third period opened with Denver continuing a power play from the second. Waidlich stoned the Pioneers on the man advantage, but seconds after the power play ended, Gauthier got control of a rebound in front of the UMass net and notched his second goal of the night to put DU ahead 5-1.
That early marker by the Pioneers took some life out of the Minutemen, and Denver capitalized again on a goal by sophomore Mike Handza at the 10:58 mark. Up 6-1, Denver was content to skate out the clock, and played solid defense in front of Mannino the rest of the way.
Gwozdecky said he felt these two non-conference games were critical for his team, now 8-5-0 overall.
“I think that we play with more control … our self-discipline is improved,” Gwozdecky said. The DU coach also mentioned the line of Gauthier, Drummond and Kevin Ulanski as a catalyst.
“When they’re feeling good and not putting too much pressure [on themselves], they play a better overall game,” Gwozdecky said. I think some of our younger players have filled the shoes [of departed seniors] … and I believe that we play a better team game than we did last year at this time.”
The Pioneers go on the road for the entire month of December, playing next at Michigan Tech Dec. 3. The Minutemen (6-8-1, 3-3-1 Hockey East) also play on Dec. 3, at home against Providence.