In a chippy, penalty-filled game, the fifth-ranked Denver Pioneers rode their power play to a 5-2 victory over the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, earning win number 20 of the season.
“I think we were very prepared today,” said Pioneers’ freshman Tyler Ruegsegger, who continued his stellar play of late, getting a goal and two assists to move to second in Pioneers’ scoring. “We knew we needed to come out strong and I think our mental preparation was the right way today.”
The Pioneers looked tentative offensively at first, but, after Trent Palm was whistled for hooking at 3:05, set up the their power play well, moving the puck around the perimeter and capitalizing at 4:21 when freshman Brock Trotter, the Pioneers’ leading scorer, pounced on a rebound of a Chris Butler shot and flicked it into the wide-open net.
Trotter, who had a goal and two assists, has been playing on a line with fellow freshman Ruegsegger and Brian Gifford of late, and was full of praise for them afterwards.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster,” said Trotter. “I feel like I played a good game tonight. I definitely play with a couple of good linemates that are playing real well offensively. I have to give credit to them; they’re just making me play better.”
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs, who boast the third-best power play in the country, were unable to capitalize on their three power play chances. The Pioneers’ penalty kill aggressively pressured the Bulldogs’ puck carriers, preventing the Bulldogs from setting up.
“We didn’t do a good job reacting or adjusting to that,” said Bulldogs’ coach Scott Sandelin. “We tried to force plays that weren’t there.”
Early in the second period, with Mike Curry off for goaltender interference, Ryan Dingle got a goal on a bizarre sequence. Moments before Dingle scored, it appeared that Trotter’s shot from the bottom of the left circle found the inside of the net and bounced out, but the goal was waved off and play continued.
Ruegsegger picked up a pass from Trotter and fired a shot low that Stalock got his pads on, but the rebound came to Dingle perched on the right side of the net. Dingle’s first attempt hit Stalock’s pads, but he lifted his second shot into the open net at 5:15.
“We just have to move the puck and communicate,” said Ruegsegger. “When you make tape-to-tape passes, it makes it easier on yourself. Trotter hit me in the slot there and I was able to get it on net and Ryan was right there.”
While the Pioneers’ power play was firing well, the Bulldogs couldn’t get untracked. Despite three chances, including a brief 5-on-3, they were unable to get a power play goal. The Pioneers were relentless on the penalty kill, using their sticks to clog the passing lanes and clear the puck, and going down to block shots.
The Bulldogs finally broke Peter Mannino’s bid for a second consecutive shutout at 16:28 on a broken play. Curry picked up the puck behind the goal line on the left side of the net and threw a pass out front that hit Ruegsegger’s stick and rolled to Andrew Carroll coming down the right side, and Carroll fired a shot that beat Mannino through the five-hole.
The Pioneers’ power play quickly got back the two goal lead however. At 18:52, Geoff Paukovich picked up the puck along the right side and cut towards the middle, firing a shot that hit a Bulldogs’ skate and came right to Gifford, who slid the puck along the ice inside the right post.
“Our special teams did a good job, got us some very timely goals,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “When you’re playing a team like Duluth, no lead is safe. They’re a good team. Our team is getting better at learning how to respond to challenges.”
The Bulldogs finally capitalized on the power play in the third period, cutting the Pioneers’ lead to one at 6:01 on a nifty play by Matt Niskanen, who picked up the puck near the right side boards, circled back to the middle along the blue line and fed a pass to Josh Meyers low on the left side, who one-timed a shot short side.
“In the third period, that was pretty much anybody’s game,” said Gwozdecky. “We got a little bit too passive. They caught fire when they scored that second goal for a while, and we lost our focus.”
Boosted by the goal, the Bulldogs started to generate sustained pressure on the Pioneers, who had trouble at times breaking out of their zone and turned the puck over frequently. Bryan McGregor had an excellent chance when he wound up a slap shot from the right side circle that Mannino just got his shoulder on.
“Any time you’re up two goals, you know the other team’s coming hard,” said Ruegsegger. “They got that second goal and they had a lot of momentum there, but we stuck with our game.”
The Bulldogs had a golden chance to tie the game when Trotter was whistled for interference at 13:06, but the Pioneers stepped up the penalty kill, holding the Bulldogs without a shot.
As the penalty ended, Trotter stepped out of the box, picked up the puck and raced down the left side boards, then fed a perfect pass to Ruegsegger streaking down the right side. Ruegsegger froze Stalock, held on to the puck for an extra second, and then beat him with a shot inside the right post, restoring the two goal lead at 15:18.
“That was the turning point,” said Sandelin. “We had an opportunity to score and we didn’t.”
“To be able to kill it off and come right out of the penalty box like Trotter did and get a 2-on-1 and score, it just changes momentum huge,” said Gwozdecky. “All of a sudden, we’ve got the jump, as opposed to Duluth that had it just a few seconds earlier.”
Rhett Rakhshani added a final goal for the Pioneers at 18:13 on a broken play when the puck got tied up in a referee’s skates along the right side boards on an offside. Rakhshani cleared the zone, circled back in, picked up the puck and fired a slap shot from the top of the circle that beat Stalock five-hole.
Sandelin was critical of Stalock’s play after the game. “I don’t think it was where it needs to be, especially the third and the last goal.”