DENVER — Through two periods, No. 6 Denver and No. 4 Notre Dame played a tight defensive battle in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game in Denver. However, walk-on freshman Luke Salazar’s two third period goals keyed an offensive explosion for the Pioneers, who won their season opener at home 5-2.
“I think it puts us off to a great start,” said Salazar. “It’s a dream come true for me.”
Notre Dame struck first early in the first when Kevin Deeth intercepted an errant pass from Pioneers’ freshman defenseman John Lee behind the net. As Deeth stepped out from behind the net to his left, he spied Billy Maday in the crease and slid a pass to him. Maday one-timed a shot that Cheverie got a piece of, but the rebound fell behind him and into the net at 3:30.
“I thought we played well early on,” said Fighting Irish coach Jeff Jackson. “I thought we got tired as the game progressed, whether it was the altitude or whatever. I thought the difference, momentum-wise, was that DU’s power play scored and ours didn’t.”
Notre Dame settled into the game after that, but a rash of penalties hurt them. The Fighting Irish took five penalties to the Pioneers’ two in the period.
“Obviously, you’re using some of your top guys to kill penalties, and fatigue sets in,” said Jackson. We took too many penalties early on and it definitely had an impact on our fatigue factor.”
On their third power play chance, the Pioneers tied the game. Tyler Bozak fed a pass from the left-side boards to Tyler Ruegsegger at the right point, and Ruegsegger fired a wrist shot low stick side past Fighting Irish goaltender Jordan Pearce at 13:57.
“It was a tough start to the game, so I think to get the first goal on the board was important for us,” said Ruegsegger. “It was just one of those goals where you just threw it on net and fortunately it went in. That was big for us and we were able to get things going, and we thought the longer we went, the better we got tonight.
“It was an interesting game, because I thought they really carried the play and gave us all kinds of problems in the first period,” said Denver Coach George Gwozdecky. “We were fortunate to come out of the first period with a tie. The thing I liked was that I really thought we got better as the game went on.”
Special teams again played a factor in the second period. Notre Dame was unable to capitalize on their three power play chances. Pioneers’ goalie Marc Cheverie made a huge save midway through the period on a mad scramble in front to keep the game tied.
Denver carried the play for most of the period, outshooting the Fighting Irish 11-7.
With the veteran Pearce in net, the Irish must have felt good about their chances to earn at least a point. However, Salazar started an offensive explosion at 4:35 of the third.
Skating up ice three-on-two with Patrick Mullen and Bozak, Mullen and Salazar passed the puck back and forth as they crossed the offensive blue line, and Mullen made a nifty pass to Salazar as he crossed through the slot. Salazar got a shot on net that Irish defenseman Brett Blatchford, sliding on the ice, appeared to cover at the left near post, but the puck somehow squirted past Pearce.
“I thought it might have had a chance to squeak through, and luckily it did,” said Salazar. “Once we got more on even-strength play, you could see us break out and do well, so I think that was huge for us.”
Shortly thereafter, Salazar netted the game-winner on a power play at 7:15, receiving a pass from Kyle Ostrow low in the left slot and firing it near side past Pearce.
Little over a minute later, freshman defenseman Patrick Wiercioch added another goal. Stationed at the point, Wiercioch got a pass from Rhett Rakhshani and fired a low wrist show that skipped past Pearce at the left post.
“Patrick got a big goal for us last Saturday, played well for us tonight, scored another big goal for us.” said Gwozdecky. “He’s a very offensive-minded player who sees the ice well.”
“They’re both great players and good kids,” said Ruegsegger of Salazar and Wiercioch. “They work hard in practice, and we’re very proud of them tonight and they did an excellent job and we’re happy to see them be successful.”
Anthony Maiani capped DU’s scoring, scoring from low in the right slot on a nifty cross-crease pass from Bozak.
Notre Dame still had chances. Dan Kissel hit the crossbar from point blank range, and at the 19:08 mark, Justin White scored from the top of the slot on a beautiful pass from Deeth.
“I was just talking to my assistant coach about the fact that there were way too many similarities in this game tonight to some of the things we faced last year where we would get scoring chances and couldn’t finish,” said Jackson. “That’ll change. We have to get our lines back intact and get our defensive pairs back intact. We have to make improvements in our power play. That’s the most important thing.”
Overall, Gwozdecky was pleased with the effort his team put forth.
“We didn’t shorten our bench at all tonight. We played four lines throughout the game, other than the special teams. It’s important for me to be able to see guys who can play in certain situations at this time of year. Playing quality opponents and beating quality opponents is important to getting invited to the national tournament. I don’t recall playing as quality a team as Notre Dame this early.”