DENVER — On Friday night, the Huskies of Michigan Tech showed that a team low in the standings can surprise even the hottest opponent, beating the Denver Pioneers 3-0 on the road.
On Saturday, however, another loss was in order for Tech as Denver used an early goal from Andrew Thomas and solid goaltending from Peter Mannino late in the game to shut the Huskies out, 1-0.
“I thought we played a very strong third period,” said DU coach George Gwozdecky.
“For whatever reason, we seem to play a little bit better in the second night of the series … last night showed if you take anything for granted, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
Denver (14-6-1, 9-4-1 WCHA) couldn’t match Tech’s intensity in the series’ first game, and as a result had their nine-game unbeaten streak broken (8-0-1). The Pioneers set out to match the Huskies’ physical game plan at the outset of Saturday’s contest.
The first period was a sluggish one for both clubs. Neither team took control early, favoring play along the boards with the occasional rush at the net. The Huskies (2-17-1, 2-14-0 WCHA) concentrated on putting bodies on the Pioneer forwards and breaking up passes. Denver broke through first at the 6:53 mark of the first, as freshman blueliner Thomas notched his first career goal on a rebound. Tech goaltender Cam Ellsworth lost sight of the puck after making the initial save, and the puck squirted out past the crease with Thomas in perfect position to the left of Ellsworth to bang the rebound home.
“It was kind of a lucky bounce, but I’ll take it,” said Thomas of his goal. “I always sneak down after a shot on net, and when I did this time the puck just landed on my stick.”
Gwozdecky pointed to Thomas’ all-around play as perhaps being more impressive than his scoring on Saturday, noting DU captain Matt Laatsch’s absence due to the flu, which was a significant void for the Pioneer defensive core.
“Andy’s big and stronghe was good clearing the puck and standing people up. With Laatsch gone, we needed our guys to step up,” said Gwozdecky.
Though Ellsworth seemed off-balance at times, he was able to get good positioning over the next few minutes as DU attempted to get more pucks on net. Across the ice, Mannino weathered a series of shots on consecutive power plays to keep the Pioneers up by one. The Huskies eventually appeared to score later in the period on a Chris Conner wrister from just outside the slot, but the goal was waved off after a review showed Mannino had been interfered with by Tech freshman Tyler Shelast.
For the majority of the second period, the play remained tight and increasingly physical. The action was stop-and-go, owing to skirmishes in front of the net that drew whistles throughout. As Denver went on the power play at 7:10 of the period, the Pioneers were able to pass effectively as Michigan Tech loosened its four-man box on the penalty kill.
Though they were never able to convert on the chance, Denver gained some room for themselves in the Husky zone and screened Ellsworth on every scoring chance. Ellsworth was up to the task and made a couple of beautiful saves after the man-advantage expired, including a pad stop on Pioneer forward J.D. Corbin and a diving stick save on a shot by Pioneer Paul Stastny.
The hitting continued hard and heavy into the third period. Husky standout winger Colin Murphy was especially aggressive as he tried to get things going for Tech. Murphy — who tallied two assists in Friday night’s win over the Pioneers — and linemate Chris Conner were neutralized for the most part as Denver focused on taking space and time away from the Huskies’ two top players.
After Denver had a few open rushes late in the third, Michigan Tech struck back and charged at the Pioneer net. But Mannino (8-2-0) was able to see most of the shots and made two consecutive brilliant saves to prevent the tying goal, including a 2-on-1 save in the last two minutes of the period. Having cleared the following scoring chance out of their own zone, the Pioneers held on for the 1-0 win.
Husky head coach Jamie Russell pointed to a lack of puck control as a primary difference in the two games.
“Last night we did a great job winning the little battles,” said Russell. “Tonight Denver won the majority of those battles to loose pucks.”
Despite earning only two wins on the season, the Huskies are a deceptively talented team, said DU head coach George Gwozdecky.
“If [Michigan Tech] continue[s] to play like thy did this weekend, they’ll have a lot of success in the second half of the season,” Gwozdecky said.
Mannino praised the Huskies, acknowledging that Tech shouldn’t be judged on their record alone.
“Everybody talks about how talented the WCHA is,” Mannino said. “It’s true. You’ve got to respect [the Huskies]. They’ve got some good talent there.”
Russell admitted that the losses were an unpleasant distraction, but that wins like Friday night’s contest help his team gel.
“There’s a certain amount of frustration [with the losses] but it’s a credit to our leaders like Colin Murphy that they still show up and stick with the system,” Russell said. “It’s encouraging to come in and beat one of the top offensive teams in the nation [Friday night], but tonight we needed to work harder.
After the game, Mannino said he feels more confident with every start. “The team is playing incredibly in front of me, and things are just going my way,” said Mannino of his shutout (28 saves). “I think after the Minnesota loss that was a wake-up call for me. Since then, I’ve just worked hard at getting things going.”
Gwozdecky was equally impressed with his rookie netminder.
“Peter’s played very well,” said Gwozdecky. “He made some big saves for us … that’s all you can ask for.”
Michigan Tech will play Notre Dame in Green Bay on the 18th in a non-conference battle, while the Pioneers will also enjoy some time off before going on the road to face St. Cloud State on January 21-22.