DENVER — While the snowy weather kept many people from attending the second semifinal game of the 15th Wells Fargo Denver Cup, the tenth ranked Denver Pioneers didn’t let it affect them as they dominated the Mercyhurst Lakers from start to finish, using their speed to keep the Lakers bottled up in their own end for large portions of the game.
The Pioneers, wearing their new Nike Swift jerseys, came out flying. Junior Geoff Paukovich, who has struggled offensively this season, got his second of the year at 4:45 of the first period. Paukovich, standing low outside the crease on the right side, took a pass from T.J. Fast and beat Lakers’ goaltender Jordan Wakefield through the five hole.
The Pioneers, who play more aggressively with a lead, looked heartened by the early goal and pressured the Lakers throughout the period, outshooting them, 18-4. Freshman Brock Trotter, who leads the Pioneers in scoring and is fourth in WCHA scoring, netted his ninth of the year on a power play, taking a pass down low from freshman linemate Rhett Rakhshani. Trotter’s first shot hit a Lakers’ skate and he picked up the rebound and slid it on the ice between the left post and a sprawling Wakefield.
“We weren’t really sure what to expect,” said Trotter. “It was only 3-0, so it was a battle. It was still a close game.”
Trotter got his tenth of year at 2:23 of the second, again on the power play. Rakhshani, again working from the point, slid a pass to Trotter standing on the goal line on the left side. Trotter quickly stepped in front of the net and beat Wakefield through the five hole.
“He was seeing the ice real well tonight,” said Trotter of Rakhshani. “He found me a couple times besides the net and I was just trying to take it towards the net and luckily two goals went in.”
“Our power play has been struggling, and you give it a 10-day break and you wonder whether they’ll even be able to pass the puck and set anything up, but it won us the game tonight,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “When your special teams are functioning like they are tonight, you’ll probably come out on the positive end of the scoreboard.”
The Pioneers aggressively forechecked the overmatched Lakers, keeping them pinned in their end for most of the period. At one point, the Pioneers held the Lakers without a shot for over five minutes.
“You just have to prepare, whether you’re seeing 25, 35 or 40 shots a game,” said junior goaltender Peter Mannino, who had 25 saves on the night while earning his second consecutive shutout. “You prepare for anything, stay focused. If you don’t see that many shots, you just have to keep stretching and stay in the flow of the game.”
The Lakers had several good chances in the increasingly chippy third period, but Mannino came up big. First, he robbed Lakers’ junior Matt Warren on a broken play. As the puck rolled from center ice towards the Pioneer blue line, Trotter caught Warren from behind, lifted his stick, and started to turn up ice. However, the puck hit a skate and rolled back to Warren behind the defense, and he walked in alone, only to have Mannino close the pads on his shot. Later, Mannino stoned Mike Floyd on a turnaround shot from alone in front of the net.
“He (Mannino) was sensational in Anchorage,” said Gwozdecky. “He’s gotten better and better over the last month. Glenn will go tomorrow night. It’s been interesting to see how those guys have moved up. Not only are they competitive, but I think they both understood the challenge before them and they accepted it and pushed themselves. But they are also very team-oriented, and I think that kind of mentality has really helped this team.”
The Pioneers had several chances to build on their lead, but Wakefield played strong, finishing with 48 saves on the night.
“Denver has a great team,” said Lakers’ coach Rick Gotkin. “I don’t think anyone was surprised by that. I don’t think they wanted to have what happened last year, losing the first game of their tournament, happen. They clearly picked us because they probably felt we were the easiest route to a championship game.”
“The whole goal since last year was to get back to the championship game, and we accomplished that,” said Gwozdecky. “I was really pleased with the effort we came out with, the mentality we approached the game with. We played smart and scored two good goals that gave us a cushion. I think we got a little reckless in the third period, but I thought it was a good effort overall.”
The new jerseys had a mixed response after the game. “They’re great,” said Mannino. “I like how it’s a little stretchy, and feels a little lighter. They’re sharp too; the design’s pretty neat.”
“I don’t mind them,” said Trotter. “I like our regular ones probably better, but it’s a nice change for one weekend.”
Looking ahead to Lowell, Gwozdecky expects a stronger challenge. “I think they’ve got more quickness, a little more depth in their lineup. They’re very young, and that creates an awful lot of enthusiasm many times. I think it should be a terrific championship game tomorrow night.”