DENVER — The No. 8 Denver Pioneers and No. 18 Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs returned to form Saturday night. One night after an uncharacteristic offensive explosion for both teams, the two ratcheted down defensively. Ultimately, the Pioneers prevailed 1-0, advancing to the Final Five for the first time since 2005.
“It’s enormous,” said Pioneers’ captain Andrew Thomas, of advancing back to the Final Five for the first time since the Pioneers’ last championship season his freshman year. “The WCHA Final Five is on par I think with the Frozen Four and every other national tournament around. I’m excited, especially since the last couple of years I think we had cheated ourselves with our efforts not taking the first round serious enough.”
DU came out strong, looking to bury the Bulldogs early and prevent the game from getting close. The Pioneers forechecked tenaciously, and drew an early power play, but were unable to convert.
“I didn’t think we had a good start,” said Bulldogs’ coach Scott Sandelin. “Better than last night though, but again I thought we played pretty well the last 15 minutes.”
The Bulldogs absorbed the early pressure and started to generate some of their own. With Bulldogs’ goalie Alex Stalock off on a delayed penalty call, MacGregor Sharp was almost sprung in alone on Mannino, but the puck rolled off his blade.
The Bulldogs started to establish a forecheck of their own, and got two power plays, but were unable to generate anything. Their best power play opportunity came when Justin Fontaine got down low on Mannino, but he was unable to stuff it in.
The Pioneers, frustrated at their inability to score early, started getting a little too eager, jumping offsides a lot and missing passes in the neutral zone.
“I thought what you saw the first half of the game, especially the first period, from us, was just a team that was feeling the nerves,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “There’s no question that especially with the puck on our stick, we were really poor in that first period. When we were supposed to outlet it, we hung onto it, and when we didn’t have to outlet it, we did. I think a lot of it had to do with the nerves.”
The best save of the period came late, when Andrew Carrol fired a bullet from the slot at Mannino that Mannino stopped with his right pad.
After killing a Pioneers’ power play to start the second period, the Bulldogs got several good chances to take the lead, but Mannino stood strong in net, stopping a blast from the point by Jason Garrison.
“We played the kind of game we need to play,” said Sandelin. “We played good defensively, we didn’t give them much. Obviously, one turnover led to their goal, and we weren’t able to capitalize.”
The Pioneers seized the lead at 7:44. Once again, it was the freshman who converted when Anthony Maiani broke in two-on-one with Jesse Martin. Maiani held the puck till he got he was deep, looking off at Martin, then fired a wrister that hit Stalock’s leg as it beat him five hole.
Right after the goal, the Pioneers had a chance on a power play, but were unable to convert. As Rob Bordson stepped out of the box, he picked up the puck and broke in alone on Mannino, but J.P. Testwuide put on a burst of speed and caught him from behind to break up the play.
Dustin Jackson continued his strong play on the weekend, splitting the defenseman and getting off a wrist shot that hit the right post, and Stalock made a huge save, robbing Martin and he and Maiani broke in two-on-one again. This time, Maiani fed a cross-slot pass that Martin one-timed on net, but Stalock got in front and turned it aside.
“We just wanted to stick to what we were doing the entire game,” said Thomas. “We were doing a good job of pushing them back on their heels, and that’s what’s been successful for us all year, the transition game.”
The Bulldogs came out fighting for their playoff lives in the third, and generated numerous chances, as Denver played conservatively, content to chip it out of their zone and not over-pursue offensively. Mannino made a great stop early on Garrison’s shot from the point.
“We know they were going to be stretching on us pretty hard, like they had the whole game,” said Thomas. “We just tried to get it up and off the glass and put heat on their defensemen to make plays.”
Denver’s best chance came when Tyler Ruegsegger and Rhett Rakhshani broke in two-on-one. Rakhshani tried to slide a pass to Ruegsegger, but Jay Cascalenda turned it aside with his stick.
“One of the things I think that has benefited this team to be able to play in situations like that is the many challenges, the adversity, we’ve gone through this year,” said Gwozdecky.
With just over two minutes left in the game, Martin looked to break behind the Duluth defense, but as he tried to step around Garrison at the blue line, Garrison stuck out his knee and knocked Martin to the ice. It appeared that it would go uncalled, but when Thomas took exception and challenged the Bulldogs bench, referee Todd Anderson called Garrison and then sent Thomas to the box for unsportsmanlike conduct. Just 42 seconds later, Testwuide was called for high-sticking, and the Bulldogs pulled Stalock for a five-on-three power play.
“Stop the puck, get that puck out of the zone,” said Mannino, of his focus on that penalty kill.
Duluth was able to generate a lot of sustained pressure, but Mannino stood strong, making a big save on Bordson’s tip-in try from down low, and a stick save on Garrison after Garrison got out of the box. The Pioneers made several clears, and Mannino preserved the shutout.
“It kind of was the story all year; the power play has been so-so,” said Sandelin. “We had a great chance there at the end, but just missed it.”
“It doesn’t even feel like a shutout,” said Mannino. “It feels like a playoff effort. We had to win that game 1-0 because Duluth was giving us nothing. It was just a hard-fought game.”
“We are a team of a lot of freshmen and sophomores, and we have to rely on those guys,” said Gwozdecky. “When we’re successful, it’s no surprise that part of that success comes from those classes, the freshmen class, the sophomore class. That’s the state of our program right now. It would nice to have (Peter) Stastny on the power play right now, but he scored today already. I think the benefit of having your freshmen and sophomores play all the time is that they develop quickly, and they get used to playing in games like this. I really think that these guys are very happy and excited about the opportunity to advance to the WCHA Final Five tournament.”