DENVER — After an emotionally draining sweep by North Dakota last week, the No. 8 Denver Pioneers returned home to the friendly confines of Magness Arena for a series with the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves. The Pioneers entered the game 12-3-1 at Magness this season, and regrouped from last weekend with a blue collar effort, taking a 4-2 win to solidify their chances at home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
“This is the one of those games where you talk about guys have to step up when you have four regulars out of the lineup,” said Pioneers’ assistant captain Chris Butler. “You look at (Julian) Marcuzzi’s line up to (Tyler) Bozak’s line, everyone did their job tonight.”
Denver had the better of the play early, including getting two power plays, but was unable to generate any sustained offense. The Pioneers looked a little shaky, possibly still suffering the emotional fallout of North Dakota’s comeback from a three-goal deficit last Friday.
“It feels like a long time ago that we won our last game, and that’s how long this week has been,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “I don’t think any of us are used to dealing with the issues we had last weekend. It was a very important game for us. You could see that we started out with some hangover effects from last weekend.”
The Seawolves capitalized first while on a power-play on a harmless looking play. With Pioneers’ defenseman Andrew Thomas and Seawolves’ forward Peter Cartwright fighting for possession along the left side boards, the puck squirted out to Kane Lafranchise at the left point. Bozak came out to the point and challenged him, but Lafranchise stepped left towards the boards, took two strides down the ice, and, as he reached the top of the left circle, let fly with a wrist shot that beat Peter Mannino high stick side at 10:15.
Less than a minute later, the Pioneers tied it up when Patrick Mullen let fly with a slap shot from the left side point that beat Jon Olthuis inside the near post at 11:03.
“That was absolutely amazing,” said Butler. “You never like to give up a lead. A goofy play, the pucks’ rolling to Pat, he takes a slap shot and it ends up it goes by him; that changes the dynamics of the game in the first period and I think we started rolling from there.”
“That goal was as important a goal as we’ve had in a long time,” said Gwozdecky. “It gave us life and brought energy into this building.”
In the second period, the Pioneers’ special teams took over. With the Seawolves’ Josh Lunden still in the box from a first period penalty, Rhett Rakhshani, standing low in the left circle, took a pass from Kyle Ostrow and one-timed a shot far side past Olthuis at 1:04.
“Five-on-five I thought we were fine,” said Seawolves’ coach Dave Shyiak. “Penalties killed us though. You get that many penalties, it creates fatigue and you’re not able to get any rhythm or make any plays.”
The Pioneers quickly tried to build on that lead. On one shift, Bozak hit the left post, Butler came in from the right point and shot high glove side, forcing Olthuis to make a sprawling save, and Dustin Jackson had a point-blank chance from the slot that Olthuis managed to stop with his pads.
The Seawolves started to get some power play chances in the latter half of the period, but might have been better off declining them.
“We made some mental errors, and they capitalized,” said Shyiak.
Bozak and Butler connected on a perfect two-on-one. Bozak skated down the right side, got Lafranchise to commit, then slid a pass through the crease to Butler, who tapped it into the empty net at 11:06.
Late in the period, Bozak, who came into the game second nationally with four shorthanded goals, got another one. Jesse Martin and Bozak broke in two-on-one, and Martin slid a pass through the slot to Bozak low in the left circle. Bozak stopped the pass with his left skate, took a stride, then roofed it past a sprawling Olthuis at 18:40.
“I’m just getting some odd-man rushes, the guys I’m playing with are making some good plays, and we’re putting the puck in the net,” said Bozak of his shorthanded success.
“He’s very aggressive,” said Gwozdecky of Bozak. “One of the things he realizes, like a lot of great penalty-killers realize, is the other team is on the power play, they’re thinking offense, and when that puck is turned over, boom, you can see a guy like Bozak really thinking about how am I going to be able to jump these guys and catch them unawares. He likes to convert plays shorthanded.”
The Seawolves played a much stronger third period, keeping the play five-on-five for the majority of it. They also played more physically, and had multiple collisions with Mannino when Mannino went to play the puck.
“I questioned the referee on the first one; he said he thought it was an inadvertent hit,” said Gwozdecky. “I questioned his judgement, and obviously the second time it happened, he called it. He didn’t let it go, so that was good to see.”
“That’s one of those things where in college hockey, you can’t really go after the guy like you could in juniors, if the guy takes a run at your goalie, you put a hard hit on him and send a message,” said Butler. “I think Pete almost enjoys it a bit.”
Luke Beaverson cut the Pioneers’ lead to 4-2 at 15:55 of the period. The Seawolves made a rush up ice, and Nick Haddad slid a pass to Beaverson in the slot, and Beaverson got it past Mannino.
The Seawolves pulled their goalie for the last two minutes of the period, but the Pioneers played strong defense, keeping the play to the perimeter, and got the much-needed win.
“Tomorrow night is pretty much the same approach,” said Gwozdecky. “It is crucial that we come out and play well and build off the momentum and confidence we were able to establish tonight.”