SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After 30 minutes on Friday night, it seemed as though fifth ranked Denver and No. 11 Notre Dame seemed to be playing an identical game to the previous night’s contest. Unlike last night, however, the Pioneers were able to find another gear in the third period, recording a 3-1 victory that gave head coach George Gwozdecky his 300th win behind the Denver bench.
Anthony Maiani’s goal with just under eight minutes to play in the game was the difference, giving Denver a 2-1 lead that they would not relinquish.
The play started when a stumble by Notre Dame’s Kyle Lawson sent Denver forward Rhett Rakhshani on a semi-breakaway into the Notre Dame zone. Rakhshani fired a shot from the slot that was stopped by Irish goaltender Jordan Pearce, but the rebound kicked out to a wide-open Maiani, who tucked it home. Patrick Mullen also recorded an assist on the play.
“I was really pleased with how our guys battled in the third period. Considering how the previous five periods had gone, especially last night’s game, I thought that last 20 minutes was critical for us to find a way to win that period,” said Gwozdecky.
The Pioneers (3-1-0) got off to a roaring start, controlling the tempo from the beginning, outplaying and outworking the Irish. However, the Pioneers were unable to put away their opponent, netting only one goal.
Almost 16 minutes into the period, the pressure paid off in the form of freshman defenseman Chris Nutini’s first career goal. Sophomore winger Rhett Rakhshani found Nutini at the point, where his one-time shot deflected off the stick of Irish forward Garrett Regan’s stick and over Pearce’s shoulder for a 1-0 Denver lead.
Despite Denver’s dominance, a key penalty kill at the end of the first period on Christian Hanson’s holding penalty enabled to Irish to get into the locker room only down one goal in a period where they were outshot 11-1.
Another slow start by the Irish (2-2-0) was of concern to head coach Jeff Jackson.
“It’s the fourth straight game that we’ve started slowly,” Jackson said. “I’m not quite sure why that is, but it’s something I’m going to have to discuss with the captains. It’s hurting us to fall behind.”
Play was much more even in the second period, with Notre Dame recording a slight edge in shots, 9-8. The Irish settled down, and their sizzling hot power play helped them tie the game just over halfway through the frame on Ryan Thang’s third goal of the year.
With the Irish set up in the Pioneer zone, senior forward Evan Rankin won a battle for the puck along the right boards and got it back to defenseman Kyle Lawson at the point. Lawson immediately fired a pass to Erik Condra at the top of the left faceoff circle, and he found a wide open Thang in the slot. Thang fired a wrist shot over the shoulder of Mannino for his second goal in as many nights.
The successful Irish power play started after a scrum in front of Notre Dame’s net. Notre Dame’s Garrett Regan and Denver’s Tyler Ruegsegger received coincidental minors for roughing after the whistle, and Pioneer freshman Jesse Martin was busted for an instigating penalty to put his team down a man. This was one of several after-the-whistle scrums in a hard hitting period.
Each team had a few chances in the third before Maiani’s goal. The Irish had two good scoring chances on their lone power play of the frame, but Denver goalie Peter Mannino, who made 19 saves, was up to the task.
Denver also had a golden opportunity on the power play eight minutes into the third when a backdoor play left Jesse Martin all alone on the doorstep. Pearce, who finished with 25 saves, was able to deny the opportunity with a highlight reel save, moving post to post and kicking out his right pad at the last instant.
After Denver took a 2-1 lead, their defense clamped down and allowed the Irish few more scoring chances. Mannino made one big save during the Irish 6-on-5 advantage, and it led to an open net goal for Tom May to give the Pioneers the final margin of victory. Andrew Thomas and Brock Trotter recorded assists on May’s empty net goal.
Denver will remain in South Bend overnight in order to attend tomorrow afternoon’s football game between Notre Dame and Southern Cal. After they head home, they begin WCHA play next Friday at home against Minnesota-Duluth. Notre Dame’s next game is Tuesday evening at Bowling Green, their CCHA opener.