DENVER — The Denver Pioneers completed an impressive opening weekend sweep of the Maine Black Bears with a 3-1 victory before a crowd of 6,048. Tyler Ruegsegger continued his strong play, and Peter Mannino made stops at key times to preserve the lead.
Fans barely had time to sit down and settle in after the national anthem before sophomore Brock Trotter, the Pioneers’ leading scorer last season, struck to put the Pioneers up 1-0. Right off the opening faceoff, Trotter split the Maine defense at the blue line and picked up the puck behind them, crashed the net and beat Maine goalie Ben Bishop five-hole.
Bishop argued the goal with the referees, seeming to feel that Trotter crashed into him and possibly knocked the net off before the puck crossed the goal line, but after a lengthy review, the call stood.
“From where I saw it on the bench, Bishop did make the initial save,” said Black Bears’ coach Tim Whitehead. “We felt that the Pioneer player carried the puck in by sliding into the goal. Having said that, I thought the officials did a great job this weekend. I like the 2-2 [two referees and two linesmen] system; it puts them in a position to succeed at both ends of the ice.”
A quick strike like that could have built momentum for the Pioneers and crushed the Black Bears before they had a chance to get into the game, but the Black Bears started to get some pressure in the offensive zone and sloppy defense by the Pioneers resulted in two quick penalties, giving the Black Bears a five-on-three power play for 1:35. The Black Bears made the Pioneers pay when Bret Tyler, stationed on the right point, took a pass from Matt Duffy and rifled a slapshot low that beat a screened Mannino five-hole.
“‘Trots’ got us off to a good start there, and when you’re down five-on-three you’ve just got to kill it off, but we were able to regroup and get going again,” said Ruegsegger.
Both teams were able to get quality scoring chances after that. During a Maine power play, Keenan Hopson and Rob Bellamy were on the doorstep with Mannino sprawled on the ice, but the puck trickled wide of the left post.
As the period wore on, the play tilted more towards the Maine end, and the Pioneers got the lead back when Ruegsegger made a nifty, spinning backhand pass from the right faceoff dot to feed linemate Jesse Martin in the left circle. Martin, a freshman, got his first college goal, firing the puck inside the left post at the 13:34 mark of the period.
“We had crossed previously and I knew he was back-door there,” said Ruegsegger. “I was just trying to get it over and it got through two sticks and he made a great shot.”
The second period dissolved into a penalty-fest, with both teams taking undisciplined penalties. However, neither team could capitalize on the power play. At one point, right after Tyler’s shot from the point skipped wide left of Mannino, Tom May picked up the puck off the boards behind the Black Bears’ defense and broke in alone on Bishop. He tried to shift to his backhand, but Bishop wasn’t fooled and made the save.
“I thought last night was the most energy I’ve seen Tommy expend in a game in his career, and it’s a good thing,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “He has to play a physical game. Tommy’s always had a difficult time putting back-to-back shifts or back-to-games together. This weekend, for the first time, I saw him evolve into the kind of player we’re going to be able to count on, the kind of player that’s going to get more and more ice time in different situations.”
Pioneers’ freshman Anthony Maiani, playing on a line with Ruegsegger and Martin, had several good chances at the midway mark, including a spinning wrister that hit the outside of the left post. Maiani’s hard work paid off late in the period. Ruegsegger, coming out from behind the Black Bears’ net after racing down the ice, lifted Bishop’s stick as Bishop tried to play the puck and stepped into the left circle, then backhanded the puck towards the net.
Bishop made a save, but just as Duffy got ready to clear the puck, Maiani streaked through the crease, reached out with his stick and poke-checked the puck back behind Duffy, picked it up and lifted a backhand past Bishop glove side, scoring his first college goal.
“It’s always nice to see freshmen come on the team like that and make big contributions,” said Ruegsegger. “I’m really proud of them and I know our team is too.”
Gwozdecky was also pleased with the performance of his freshmen this weekend. “I think like everybody else I didn’t have any idea as to the kind of team we were going to be. Knowing full well that quite a few freshmen were going to have to play a lot and contribute, I like what I see right now. They’re smart players, and the more they play the more you can see that the older players trust them.”
In the third period, Maine finally got sustained pressure, outshooting the Pioneers in a period for the first time. However, every time the Black Bears kept the puck in the zone, Mannino came up big.
“He was very, very impressive,” said Whitehead. “He made big stops, and timely ones too. He made lots of different types of saves too; saves through traffic, saves on the rush, saves going across the net. I’d agree we were trying for too much at times. We should have put more pucks at his feet from a wide angle and go for the second shot, but perhaps we were trying to pick corners and we shot high and wide too many times.”
Mannino’s best saves came with Maine on a power play in the final period. First, he closed the five-hole on Tanner House’s tip-in attempt from right in front, and then he made the save of the series on Billy Ryan moments later. Ryan, standing on the right post, grabbed a rebound and had an open net to shoot at, but Mannino slid over at the last minute and got his pad on it, stopping a sure goal.
“That save, there was just that moment of quiet, because, OK, Maine’s just scored, and all of a sudden Pete’s pad comes out of nowhere and it was like, oh my goodness, how the hell did he make that save?” said Gwozdecky. “That’s not technique; that’s just the will to compete as hard as you possibly can. I think it’s very noticeable how hard our team competes.”