DENVER — The Denver Pioneers set out this season to recapture the Wells Fargo Denver Cup. In the process of accomplishing that goal, the Pioneers also showed why they are one of the teams to beat in the WCHA this year.
One night after Peter Mannino shutout the Mercyhurst Lakers, Glenn Fisher came within 4.3 seconds of matching the feat as he led the Pioneers to a 2-1 victory in the championship game tonight at Magness Arena.
“You see the other guy do well, and you just want to notch it up,” said Fisher.
The Pioneers looked sloppy in the first period, and the River Hawks used their speed well, generating several good scoring chances and aggressively forechecking to clog the neutral zone and prevent the Pioneers from using their speed to attack. Todd Fletcher got a great wrist shot off that handcuffed Fisher, almost backing him into the net. Kory Falite had a couple of chances down low, but Fisher came up big.
“The River Hawks came at us fast and hard, and it was a struggle for us to come out of our zone with any type of momentum,” said Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky. “Some of the time, all we were trying to do was relieve the pressure and get it out, forget about trying to go on the attack, forget about transition.”
When the Pioneers did manage to get into the River Hawks’ end, they often were shooting from the perimeter. J.P. Testwuide had a great deflection of Chris Butler’s slap shot go just wide, and Brock Trotter stepped out from the goal line and got a good shot off, but River Hawks’ netminder Carter Hutton got the pads down.
In the second period, the River Hawks had excellent chances, but were unable to capitalize. The Pioneers counterpunched well, and at 6:18 got the first goal of the night when Tom May took a pass at center ice from Tyler Ruegsegger and streaked down the middle with Nick Schaus harassing him from behind. As May neared the top of the circle, he stepped to his right and shot a laser of a wrist shot high glove side past Hutton.
The River Hawks quickly went back on the attack, and only Fisher’s brilliance in net kept the Pioneers ahead. Fisher stoned Paul Worthington alone in front of the net as a power play ended.
When Fisher needed it, he got lucky as well. After a poor turnover by Pioneers’ defenseman Chris Butler in the defensive zone, Jeremy Hall was on the right doorstep with Fisher sprawled on his back, reaching with his glove, but Hall’s shot went over the crossbar into the netting behind the boards.
“There was one point at 9:22 of the second period when we were outshooting them 22-9,” said River Hawks’ coach Blaise MacDonald. “I thought a lot of our chances were around the crease, and we had an open net we kind of threw it over. I give them credit; they played tenacious defense, as good teams do.”
In the third period, the Pioneers made some adjustments and started to get more sustained pressure on Hutton. Junior Geoff Paukovich, who has shaken off his early season malaise, gave the Pioneers a cushion, notching his second goal of the tournament. Coming across the blue line, tournament MVP Rhett Rakhshani intercepted an errant clear out of the air with his glove, put the puck down and fired a shot from the high slot that Paukovich, coming through the crease, deflected.
“I think I just came in really focused to make a change,” said Paukovich. “We made an adjustment on our forecheck so Rhett kind of slid over the middle of the ice and it worked out perfectly. Once I saw him get the puck, my first instinct was to go the net, and I was able to get my stick on it.”
“I think I came off the bench and saw the defenseman turning up and he had his head down, so I was waiting in the slot only hoping he could send it to me,” said Rakhshani. “It went in the air so I was forced to make a catch; half the time I miss that but it hit my hand perfectly and I spun around and just fired it and Pauko deflected it.”
“Our margin for error is very slim, so we can’t be beating ourselves with a real bad turnover in our zone that puts them up 2-0,” said MacDonald.
After the goal, the Pioneers clamped down defensively, aggressively blocking shots and clearing lose pucks from in front of the net.
“I think our guys are proud of what they can accomplish by blocking shots,” said Gwozdecky.
The River Hawks pulled Hutton for the extra attacker at 18:26 and had several flurries. With 4.3 seconds left, Jeremy Dehner fired a shot from the left point that Frank Stegnar deflected in front just past Fisher’s outstretched glove, ending Fisher’s shutout bid.
“I was very proud of how hard we played,” said MacDonald. “We never quit, and I’m not so sure we didn’t deserve better. I think all the experiences we have with a young team, they mean something, and for Dehner, he’s had a lot of weekends like this.”
The all-tournament team included Mercyhurst goaltender Jordan Wakefield, Dehner, Butler, Trotter, Paukovich and Rakhshani.
“Selfishly, I’m really glad they decided not to take him on the World Junior team,” said Gwozdecky of Rakhshani. “He continues to be one of our freshman leaders, and I’m proud of what he’s been able to accomplish. He’s gotten so much better over the last three months. He is a threat every time he gets the puck, and he’s learning to read the ice better.”