DENVER — With the loss of Ryan Dingle and Geoff Paukovich to the pros during the offseason, Denver Pioneers’ head coach George Gwozdecky turned to his younger players for leadership.
Sophomore Tyler Ruegsegger and junior Chris Butler were named assistant captains for the 2007-2008 season, and in their first game, the two came up big for the Pioneers. Ruegsegger scored the first goal and added an assist, and Butler contributed two assists to lead the Pioneers to a 2-0 victory over the Maine Black Bears before a crowd of 6,040 in the first game of the season for both teams.
“We started working on the power play this week, and it paid off,” said Ruegsegger. “We had two power-play goals and a lot more chances, so down the stretch if we can keep that going it will be real helpful for us.”
The first period featured tight checking and strong play from both goaltenders. The Pioneers got an excellent early chance when they were awarded a brief five-on-three power play in the first three minutes of the period. They moved the puck well around the perimeter, looking to get traffic in front and pounce on a rebound, but Ben Bishop stood strong.
The Pioneers outshot the Black Bears 16-7 in the period, but the Bears had a couple of decent chances, including a power-play shot from the left-side post by Rob Bellamy that Peter Mannino just managed to stop. The Pioneers had their best opportunity on a power play late in the period when Brock Trotter, stationed in the left corner, fed Ruegsegger streaking down from the right point, but Ruegsegger’s snap shot went wide.
“Bishop’s a big goalie, and you’ve just got to keep shooting the puck,” said Ruegsegger. “You take 50 shots, eventually one will go in.”
“I thought both goaltenders were just terrific,” said Gwozdecky. “I still can’t believe some of the pucks we couldn’t get in the back of the net.”
The Pioneers capitalized first on a power play at 5:46 of the second period. Butler took a shot from the left point that Bishop got the pads on. An attempted clear by Matt Duffy from the slot was intercepted by Ruegsegger at the right point, and he fired a slapshot high stick-side past Bishop.
“Our power play was moving the puck real well and we had some chances, and one finally went in the net for us, so that was a big goal for our team, no question,” said Ruegsegger.
“Against a team like them, you can’t come out and take penalties like we did,” said Black Bears’ coach Tim Whitehead. “They made us pay for it, and we did not give ourselves the best opportunity to win tonight.”
The Pioneers continued to put pressure on Bishop, trying to build on the momentum. Sophomore right wing Brock Trotter got behind the Black Bears’ defense on a two-on-one and cut hard to the net, trying to go to his backhand, but Bishop got his right pad down just as Trotter crashed into him, knocking him and the net down.
The Black Bears seemed to gather strength from Bishop’s resilience, and started to get sustained pressure on Mannino. Keenan Hopson had an excellent chance as he streaked down the slot, but his wrister went wide right. With just over a minute to go in the period, Mannino stoned Josh Van Dyk from the bottom of the right circle, and in the ensuing mad scramble for the rebound the Pioneers drew a penalty.
It proved costly when at 19:42 of the period, freshman Kyle Ostrow got his first college goal, firing a shot from the right circle that beat Bishop five-hole. Bishop was screened on the play, and it appeared the puck deflected in front before going in.
“That was a big turning point,” said Whitehead. “Even when we were able to generate some chances and some momentum, we would take a penalty and then any momentum we’d gained on the shift, it kind of deflated the balloon. We’re going to have to have a lot more focus, a lot more discipline, tomorrow night.”
The third period featured more back-and-forth play. Each time the Black Bears got a good scoring chance, however, Mannino proved equal to the challenge. He robbed Vince Laise on a backhander in the crease, and in the last minute managed to get his left pad down while sprawled out of position to stop a golden chance from Billy Ryan and preserve the shutout.
“Early in the year like this, you get tired,” said Gwozdecky. “I thought there were times where that fatigue really showed, especially where we overextended our shifts. You could see guys start to make mistakes, turnovers, and that’s where Peter Mannino was phenomenal for us. There were probably five or six times where we went completely brain-dead because we were so tired, and Peter was great.”
Overall, Gwozdecky was pleased with his team’s performance, especially the transition game and their ability to generate shots off their speed.
“We have quickness, we’ve got some speed, and that speed is really enhanced when we move the puck well, and we did that many times tonight,” said Gwozdecky. “They’re a team that plays hard, and they play very well defensively. They blocked a lot of shots, and I can assure you that tomorrow night is going to be a huge battle.”