DENVER — In a tight game, the No. 5 Denver Pioneers got a last-minute goal to sweep the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves and advance to the Final Five in St. Paul next weekend, edging the Seawolves 4-3 in a game where they twice rallied from a deficit. Freshman Luke Salazar netted the game-winner with only 47 seconds left in the third period.
“It was barely good enough, but it was good enough,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “I’m certainly proud of them, because they’re banged up pretty good. [Salazar] has really developed into a more multi-dimensional player. He’s really improved.”
Once again, the Seawolves got on the board first. Kevin Clark, who has been lethal against DU, came down the slot and fired a backhand from right in front that beat Cheverie five-hole at 6:54.
The Pioneers looked lethargic offensively in the first, trying to get used to their new lines. However, at 11:54, Rhett Rakhshani got Denver even. Anthony Maiani fed a pass from the left circle to Rakhshani in the right circle, and Rakhshani beat Christianson high short side with a quick wrist shot at 11:54. The goal gave Rakhshani his 100th point in his collegiate career.
The Seawolves however, quickly countered on a play Cheverie probably wants back. Tommy Grant broke in two-on-one, skating up the left side boards, and fired a shot from the left circle that hit Cheverie’s arm and went in at 14:37.
The Seawolves, buoyed by the goal, got some good chances, but Cheverie shook off the bad goal and kept the Pioneers close.
“I want all my goals back, but I try and put it behind me,” said Cheverie of the second goal. “That’s the best thing you can do as a hockey player when you make a mistake, is to forget about it and focus on your next shift.”
“That’s the one thing I’ve seen in him, is his ability to respond to challenges he creates,” said Gwozdecky.
This enabled Denver to tie it up late. With time winding down, Jesse Martin broke free on the right side and fired a shot that went through Christianson’s five hole, hit the left post, and slide across the goal line near the far post at 18:39.
The second period quickly dissolved into a series of penalties. Denver got whistled for three straight penalties, giving the Seawolves a full two minutes of five-on-three, plus five-on-four on either end, but the Pioneers’ aggressive penalty killing stymied the Seawolves’ attack.
“I guess I’m stating the obvious in that it was very important,” said Gwozdecky. “Patrick Mullen did a great job, Brandon Vossberg, Jesse Martin, John Ryder, J.P. Testwuide, they did a great job getting us through that stuff. Penalty killing is only as good as your goaltending though, and Marc Cheverie time and time again makes us look better than we are.”
“We’re missing one of our better offensive defensemen, Curtis Leinweber,” said Seawolves’ coach Dave Shyiak. “He’s back home, and we had some guys back there that we practiced with and we just didn’t execute.”
Denver took their first lead of the night with a power-play goal, capitalizing on a Clark unsportsmanlike penalty. Anthony Maiani fed a cross-ice pass to Patrick Mullen in the left circle, and Mullen one-timed it past Christianson at 14:36.
However, a late penalty on Dustin Jackson for unsportsmanlike conduct let the Seawolves tie it back up when Mat Robinson got a pass in the right circle and fired it past Cheverie at 16:33.
Denver held the advantage territorially in the third. Maiani had a great tip-in try early from right post out of mid-air, and he had another chance from the left post with Christianson down, but was unable to get the puck high.
At the other end of the ice, though he didn’t see as many shots, Cheverie had to make several big saves, including one on a point blank chance from the slot.
“Just mental toughness really,” said Cheverie. “It’s tough to stay sharp when you don’t see a lot of shots. The best thing to do is just focus on the puck and not get distracted. Both goalies played really well.”
The game looked to be headed to overtime, but with 47.4 seconds left, Kyle Ostrow made a great play. Ostrow picked up the puck along the left boards and circled around behind the net. As he skated out from the right post to his left, he looked back and backhanded the puck through the crease to Salazar at the far post, and Salazar one-timed it into the open net.
“He’s got great vision, and he just passed it through the crease there right to my stick,” said Salazar. “It was one of those goals where I just stand there and tap it in. We’ve been trying to work on stuff in practice and stuff, and getting the goalie moving side-to-side.”
From there, the Pioneers ran out the clock against a demoralized Seawolves squad to advance to the Final Five in St. Paul next weekend.
“I thought it was a season in which we progressed in a lot of ways,” said Shyiak. “I thought the series with Denver could have gone either way. Tonight I thought we were the better team, but it wasn’t in the cards for us to win.”
While pleased to have advanced, the series was costly. Tyler Ruegsegger was injured in Friday’s game and is lost for the season. In Saturday’s contest, Jesse Martin got hurt late in the third period and did not return. His status for next weekend is not known.
“We’re getting a little lean in numbers at center especially,” said Gwozdecky. “I’m certainly glad we decided to win tonight’s game because it would have been real tough tomorrow night. Joe Colborne is really our only center left right now.”