DENVER — One week after an emotionally devastating sweep at the hands of the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, the No. 8 Denver Pioneers came out with a strong team effort and swept the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves, clinching home ice for the WCHA playoffs with a 3-1 win in front of 6,031 fans at Magness Arena.
“One of the things we try to do every year is get home ice for the playoffs,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “We still have a ways to go though. I think it was a good step forward for us, to get two almost must wins, and I’m really pleased and proud with how our team responded.”
The Seawolves came out strong, looking to establish momentum early and get the Pioneers in a more defensive position. The Seawolves got the first power play of the game, though they couldn’t convert, and held the Pioneers without a shot for the first five minutes.
The Pioneers didn’t get any shots until they went on a power play, and, like Friday night, the special teams quickly capitalized. The Pioneers cycled the puck well and got off several good shots. Patrick Mullen made a great play to keep the puck in the zone, outracing a Seawolves’ player to a puck near the blue line, and moments later Mullen fired a shot on net that handcuffed Seawolves’ goalie Jon Olthuis. Olthuis gave up a rebound and couldn’t get back to his feet before Rhett Rakhshani crashed the net, picked up the rebound and fired it in at the 6:00 minute mark of the period.
“I think that was pretty big,” said Rakhshani. “It’s always pretty big to get the first goal of the game just for momentum. They were coming pretty hard and the momentum kind of shifted after that.”
Buoyed by the goal, Denver started to carry the play more, but were unable to build on their lead. When the Seawolves did generate an offensive chance, they seemed determined to crash Mannino as often as possible, knocking him after the whistle and drawing the ire of the Pioneers’ defensemen.
Defenseman J.P. Testwuide put the Pioneers up 2-0 at 7:58 of the second. With the Pioneers forechecking strongly, Dustin Jackson carried the puck through the high slot and passed it to Testwuide at the right point, who one-timed a slap shot high glove side past a screened Olthuis. The puck appeared to hit the Seawolves’ Mat Robinson on the way in.
The Seawolves finally got on the board at 11:39 when Tommy Grant picked up a rebound of a Jared Tuton shot low in the right circle, took a step towards the net, and slid it past Mannino’s right pad into the far corner.
“You measure out the quality scoring chances, they’re even,” said Seawolves’ coach Dave Shyiak. “I thought we had chances, but it’s been our story all year long, not converting or capitalizing. I thought there were plays to be made.”
A late goal by Matt Glasser gave the Pioneers the two-goal lead going into the third. Glasser took a pass from Brian Gifford near the red line and put on a burst of speed to get by a diving Shane Lovdahl at the blue line, looked off for a pass through the slot to Chris Butler, then fired a shot five-hole past Olthuis at 18:12.
“It was a great play by Brian there to get the puck to me,” said Glasser. “I think I lost it at the blue line to tell you the truth. I thought they were going to catch up to me, and then going in, me and Butler, I was thinking pass the whole time until the last second, and just decided to shoot it.”
“That goal tonight was huge,” said Gwozdecky of Glasser’s play. “He looked off the goaltender and defenseman real well. Chris Butler jumped up in the play and activated it and forced that defenseman to back off. Matt made a great shot. At that point, prior to the goal, they definitely had some momentum going in their favor, and to get us that two-goal cushion was huge.”
Olthuis managed to keep the Seawolves within two moments later when he stopped Anthony Maiani on a breakaway.
Both teams had some good chances in the third period, but the goaltenders played strong. Olthuis robbed Brandon Vossberg from point-blank range on back-to-back shots, while Mannino stood tall in the final few minutes and controlled his rebounds, preventing the Seawolves from getting closer.
“I think we can really just be more concerned with our play and improving certain areas that all teams need to do at this time of year, and getting the proper rest,” said Gwozdecky.