DENVER — Two teams that have struggled a lot with offense coming into their playoff series would be expected to fight a tough, defensive battle that would be decided by a bounce or two. Instead, the No. 8 Denver Pioneers and No. 18 Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs combined for nine goals, and Denver won their first playoff game since 2006 in convincing fashion, 6-3, to take a 1-0 lead in their playoff series.
“Go figure huh?” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky about the offensive explosion. “All I can say is it certainly was beneficial and a huge confidence boost and momentum booster to score the first goal and build on that, and we had an answer for every time they were able to put us on our heels.”
It was important for Denver to start strong, and they did, getting several early shots on Bulldogs’ goalie Alex Stalock. Freshman Dustin Jackson got the Pioneers on the board at 2:15 on a great play by Brandon Vossberg. Vossberg went in behind the net on the forecheck and backhanded the puck out to Jackson in the slot, and Jackson roofed it glove side at 2:15.
“I think we definitely just wanted to come out and get the first goal and get the crowd into it,” said Jackson. “This past few games, we haven’t scored the first goal, and that’s been a little bit of a struggle, so it was definitely huge for us to come out and get the lead.”
Right after the goal, the Pioneers’ top line almost converted when assistant captain Tyler Ruegsegger carried the puck in over the blue line and passed it to Tyler Bozak streaking between two defenders. Bozak tipped it wide, but did draw a penalty on the play.
Jackson made the Bulldogs pay on the ensuing power play. As the power play was close to expiring, Tom May took a wrist shot from the right point, and Jackson tipped it between Stalock’s legs at 4:58.
“I just tried getting in front of the net and May had a nice shot,” said Jackson. “He saw me in front and kept it low and I was able to get my stick on it.”
At the other end of the ice, Pioneers’ goalie Peter Mannino wasn’t facing as much pressure, but he did make several big stops on two different Bulldogs’ power plays, seeing the puck well in traffic and making a good pad save on a shot from the point by Travis Gawryletz.
“I wish I could explain our start,” said Bulldogs’ coach Scott Sandelin. “They were more ready, and it certainly showed. It’s tough to play catch-up hockey.”
Duluth came out with much better jump in the second period. Matt McKnight had a good chance early, breaking down the slot, but he shot it just wide.
Stalock made a highlight reel save to keep the score close. Bozak and Rhett Rakhshani broke in two-on-one with Rakhshani trailing slightly behind coming down the left side. Bozak spied him, hung back a little, and made a spinning behind-the-back pass, and Rakhshani got off a point-blank shot that Stalock saved. The puck popped into the air and came down in the crease with Stalock on the ice, but Duluth cleared it.
The Bulldogs finally got on the board at 8:23 of the period. After Mannino made a save, the Pioneers tried to clear it out, but a Duluth defender intercepted it and kept it in play. Mike Curry carried the puck out of the right corner and crashed the net, and Andrew Carroll picked up the rebound and stuffed it inside the post.
However, the Pioneers quickly re-established their two-goal lead when Jackson intercepted Trent Palm’s pass at the red line and carried the puck down the right side boards two-on-one with Matt Glasser. As he hit the hashmarks, Jackson slid a pass through the crease to Glasser, but the puck hit Palm’s stick, then slid through the crease to Glasser, who stuffed it into the open net at 9:29.
“The ‘D” made a nice pass up to the wing, and I saw it and went for the pass; I think the wing was expecting me to go for the hit, but I took the pass,” said Jackson. “Glasser, I think the ‘D’ had a tough time keeping up with him because he’s so fast, and I saw him back door. Luckily the puck got through and he made a nice play to get it in there.”
The Pioneers’ furthered their lead on a power play after Michael Gergen tripped Stephen Cunningham on a partial breakaway. On the ensuing power play, Kyle Ostrow picked up the puck and broke in two-on-one with Bozak. Ostrow slid a pass through the slot to Bozak in the left circle, and Bozak took one stride and rifled the puck top corner stick side at 13:39.
“Me and Kyle just came in on a two-on-one there and Kyle made a great pass to me,” said Bozak. “I was on the far side, and luckily just got it and shot it up over his pads in the pad stack there.”
Just when it seemed the Pioneers were going to run away with it, the Bulldogs struck back. Matt Greer got the puck in the left corner and passed it to Rob Bordson at the left circle hashmarks. Pioneers’ captain Andrew Thomas misplayed it, stepping towards Bordson and allowing Bordson to backhand the pass over to Curry alone in the slot. Curry wound up and fired a slap shot top corner stick side as Mannino slid to his left at 16:29.
“It was like the old days,” laughed Sandelin ruefully. “It was a weird game. I give them credit. They got a great start and put us in a hole and we battled out of it, and every time we got it close, they answered with a goal. I think that we certainly gave them some easy goals, and you can’t do that at this time of year.”
Going into the third period, momentum seemed to be up in the air. It didn’t take long for the Pioneers’ to seize it. On the first play of the period, just 23 seconds in, J.P. Testwuide wound up on a slap shot from the left point, and Bozak deflected it out of mid-air past Stalock, who had no chance on the play.
“It was definitely a big goal for us,” said Bozak. “Dusty (Jackson) came out and gave us a great start, which we really needed. We’ve been coming from behind the last few games and one of the things we wanted was to get the first goal. The rest of the way, we kind of sailed along and got a few bounces.”
“I thought that throughout the evening our guys played fairly consistently,” said Gwozdecky. “I don’t think any of us anticipated that it would be that high scoring a game, but sometimes you really can’t control that. Sometimes the tips go in, sometimes they don’t.”
The Bulldogs clawed back in though. With May in the box already, Cody Brookwell was whistled for cross-checking, giving the Bulldogs a 20-second five-on-three power play. The Bulldogs quickly capitalized when Bordson, standing in the right circle, fed a cross-slot pass to Josh Meyers, who one-timed it inside the left post past Mannino at 5:55.
Brookwell atoned for his penalty however. As the penalty expired, a Duluth forward tried to pass it back to the point, and it got out of the zone to Brookwell as he stepped out of the box. Brookwell raced down the left side, got Stalock to commit and backhanded it top shelf at 7:50 to make it 6-3.
“I think for our senior class especially, this was important,” said Gwozdecky. “They had so much success as freshmen, and it’s been kind of a drought the last two years. I know they’ve been talking about it the last couple of weeks. This series is very important to them. We got the first game in the books, but I firmly believe that Duluth team is going to come out and play as hard, if not harder, tomorrow night.”