DENVER — In a game much more like what you would expect from the No. 3 and 4 teams in the nation, the Denver Pioneers edged the Colorado College Tigers 3-2 in hard-fought defensive battle before 6,083 fans at Magness Arena. The win was the first by the Pioneers against the Tigers in their last seven tries, and evened the Gold Pan Series 1-1.
“One of the things I tried to do in our meeting today was to express to everybody how great this rivalry is, the history of it, and how important it is to us, and relive some of the great games that these two teams have had against each other over the years, and also let them know that what happened last night wasn’t acceptable,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “The only statistic that mattered going into tonights game was the one that was 0-4-2 (the Pioneers record against the Tigers in their previous six games). We needed to do something to see if we could change that around, and we did enough.”
It didn’t take long for the Tigers to get on the board. On the first shift, Rhett Rakhshani was whistled for interference at .38 seconds and the Tigers quickly set up in the Pioneers’ zone. Moments after Brian Connelly rang a slap shot off the right post, Jimmy Kilpatrick took a pass from Chad Rau, took a few strides to the mid-point of the left circle and rifled a slap shot inside the left post past Mannino at 1:11 of the period.
“Anytime you go on the road, you want to take the crowd out of it, and going up 1-0 is the best thing to do,” said Tigers’ coach Scott Owens. “We had a power play goal, and I thought it set the tone for us. I thought we had a good first period.”
“Obviously we wanted to get a good start and kill that,” said Pioneers’ forward Tyler Ruegsegger, who had a goal and an assist. “We looked at the PK, we knew exactly what we did wrong, and we fixed it. It just shows when you make one mistake, they can make you pay for it.”
The Pioneers spent much of the first period playing a very physical style, much unlike how they usually play. At times, they seemed more concerned with getting a hit than going after the puck. The Tigers took advantage of this, generating several good chances, including a nice tip-in try by Rau from the slot that Mannino just got the pads on.
Scott Thauwald got off a shorthanded chance from the slot with four Pioneers surrounding him, but Mannino made the save, and Bill Sweatt had an excellent chance from down low that Mannino just managed to get an arm on and knock away.
“They were putting really good pressure on us and they started getting the puck going right away,” said Pioneers’ forward Tom May.
In the defensive zone, the Tigers did a good job of bottling up the Pioneers’ forwards, preventing them from pouncing on any rebounds. When the Pioneers did get the puck, Richard Bachman proved unflappable, as when Brian Gifford and Rakhshani both got off tries on rebounds back to back that he steered aside.
“I thought Peter was terrific in that first period and really kept us in it,” said Gwozdecky. “Sometimes youre really looking forward to getting to the intermission and sometimes youre not, depending on how things are going, and tonight was one of those nights.”
The start of the second period featured a ‘Twilight Zone’ type moment, as the timekeeper had technical difficulties and kept time via stopwatch, announcing time the time of the period every 30 seconds.
The Tigers carried the play for the first part of the period, and Mannino stood strong to keep the Pioneers in the game. Andreas Vlassopoulos had an excellent back door chance when Sweatt fed him a perfect cross-ice pass, but the tip in try slid through the crease.
Mannino robbed Scott McCulloch from point blank range, as McCulloch got the puck in the left circle with an open shooting lane, but Mannino got his glove up, and Sweatt had another excellent chance late in the period, but Mannino got his right shoulder up.
“The problem tonight is we just didn’t take advantage of the second period when we had two power plays and several grade A scoring chances,” said Owens. “Mannino played outstanding tonight; he played like a veteran.”
The period turned in less than a minute. With Mannino off for an extra skater on a delayed call, Gifford, at the right point, found Patrick Mullen at the bottom of the left circle twice. Mullen’s first shot was blocked by Bachman, and the puck came back to Gifford. Gifford fed Mullen again, and Mullen again one-timed it, but Bachman couldn’t control the rebound and it came to Ruegsegger in the slot, who roofed a shot glove side at the 18:09 mark.
“You know what? Everyone on the ice deserved that goal, and I happened to by in the right place at the right time and no joke about that,” commented Ruegsegger. “Rhett in the corners, Gifford forechecking, Mullen at the point, and I was just in the slot the whole time, the puck came right to me and I went upstairs with it.”
Just 47 seconds later, Gifford came in on a forecheck and pressured Jake Gannon in the right corner. Gannon tried to backhand the puck up the right side boards, but Ruegsegger intercepted it and spied Rakhshani streaking towards the net. Ruegsegger fed the puck through the slot, and Rakhshani tipped it in low stick side to give the Pioneers the lead going into the third.
“It’s just amazing to me to see how psychologically this game works,” said Gwozdecky. “The Tigers score early, and for the rest of the period, and probably early in the second, we just seem to be a little bit slow and CC just seems to be a lot more in control. We get that first goal, and all of a sudden theres just that huge enthusiastic swing for us, where our guys are now a lot more excited and we’re back in the game, and from that point on, the whole thing changes, and now we’re the ones making the plays and being more aggressive.”
The Pioneers, buoyed by the late goals, started to carry the play more in the third period. Gifford had a great sliding tip-in try of a Ruegsegger shot that went just high and wide, while Jesse Martin had a great tip-in try of an Anthony Maiani pass as he skated into the slot, but Bachman got the five hole closed in time.
“Defensively, we just needed to stay on our man and be aware of them cycling the puck and stay on our guys,” said May. “We were just trying to turn the puck up ice faster.”
The Tigers didn’t give up however, and continued to get their chances. Derek Patrosso had a golden chance from the slot, but he fired it just wide right.
May gave the Pioneers some breathing room, taking a pass from Brandon Vossberg and skating down the right side boards, then firing a perfect wrist shot top corner from the right side hashmarks at 12:07.
“I think we had a two-on-one with Matt Glasser,” said May. “We had the same play last night and ended up letting the shot go and nothing really happened, so I was just trying to get the shot on net and see what happened.”
The Tigers got a late goal from Eric Walsky on a fantastic single-handed effort to keep things interesting. Walsky picked up the puck just inside the blue line along he left side boards, took a few strides towards the circle, then cut back to the middle and slid a wrist shot along the ice glove side into the net.
The Tigers quickly called time, and on the ensuing faceoff got the puck into the Pioneers zone and pulled Bachman, but the Pioneers kept the puck to the perimeter. Ruegsegger had an empty net try hit the right post, but the Pioneers managed to keep the Tigers bottled up in their defensive zone to earn the 3-2 win.
“This is a big rivalry,” said Ruegsegger. “We talked about that this morning (not winning in their last six tries). They work extremely hard, they’re skilled, so every time, you have to be ready to play them. In my career, this is the first game where I think we were ready to play them, and it felt good tonight to get that win.”