COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Over the last few years, the No. 2 Denver Pioneers personal brand of kryptonite has been the No. 6 Colorado College Tigers.The last time Denver beat their arch-rival was November 24, 2007, going 1-7-5 in the last 13 games.
Part of that difficulty could be attributed to former Tigers’ goalie Richard Bachman, who seemed to always step up against DU. In last year’s four games, Bachman made 44, 40, 41, and 32 saves. In front of a sold-out crowd of 7,672 Friday at the World Arena, DU veteran Marc Cheverie stepped up his play, stopping 26 of 27 shots to help lead Denver to a 2-1 win over their archrival.
“It was huge for us,” said Cheverie. “It was for the Gold Pan and WCHA standings. We knew they were going to come out hard.”
The start of the game seemed like more of the same. Within the first minute, the Tigers tested Cheverie, forcing him to make a difficult save with his upper body.
“There’s no doubt that Cheverie’s a veteran goaltender, and tops statistically in the country, big and strong and experienced, and he showed it tonight,” said Tigers’ coach Scott Owens. “We had chances for three goals, four goals, and Cheverie played well, and they blocked a lot of shots.”
CC controlled the early play, but it was Denver who struck first when Jesse Martin stepped out from behind the net and skated to his right, then whirled and passed to Tyler Ruegsegger alone in the slot, who tapped the puck past Joe Howe’s left pad at 3:36.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve beaten these guys, and I don’t know when the last time we beat them here was, but it seems even longer,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “Jesse Martin played a really strong game. He made a great play on Tyler Ruegsegger for the first goal. When you can score early and take the opposing crowd out of the game, it does wonders for your psyche and how you’re playing. Getting the first goal of the game was a huge objective of ours.”
From there, most of the play was controlled by the Tigers, abetted by three DU penalties. William Rapuzzi was robbed by Cheverie’s right pad on a doorstep play. Tyler Johnson was alone back door with an open net, only to see the puck go between his skates. David Civitarese broke his stick on a one-timer attempt from the right circle on a two-on-one, and Stephen Schultz forced Cheverie to make a save with his left shoulder as time expired in the period.
“If you can keep them to one goal and get good goaltending and block shots and play a simple blue collar game, that’s what you want to do on the road to be successful,” said Pioneers’ captain Rhett Rakhshani.
The Pioneers built on their lead early on the second while on a power play. Playing the right point, Ruegsegger fed a perfect pass to Rakhshani in the left circle, and Rakhshani spun and fired a wrist shot high stick side at 2:59 to give Denver the crucial two-goal lead.
Right after Rakhshani’s goal, Johnson got a partial breakaway, but Cheverie made the save with his left pad just before Johnson crashed into him and knocked the net off its moorings.
“It’s just the leadership,” said Rakhshani of Cheverie. “I keep saying that to people, but he’s been such a leader and we feed off of him when he makes a big save. We hang him out sometimes and he has to stand up and make big saves for us.”
Denver almost made it a three-goal lead on another power play chance at the 15-minute mark of the period, but Howe made a save on Anthony Maiani in the slot while lying on his back when Maiani couldn’t lift the puck high.
“For his first Denver tilt, I thought he (Howe) handled himself pretty well,” said Owens. “We limited them to 18 shots. It was a good hockey game. For us, it was a good test.”
CC continued to pressure Denver however, and only Cheverie’s play kept the Tigers off the board. In the waning minute of the period, Patrick Wiercioch was skating out of the zone with the puck but fell as he attempted an ill-advised cross-ice pass, and Schultz intercepted it, going the other way two-on-one with Matt Overman against Cody Brookwell, who made a strong play, sliding on his stomach with his skates facing the goalie, preventing Schultz from getting a pass across. Schultz ripped a shot high short side that Cheverie stopped with his shoulder.
“That guy just kind of guessed and I guessed right, so I feel pretty lucky about it,” said Cheverie.
“Once again, he was very strong, played with a lot of confidence and poise,” said Gwozdecky of Cheverie. “We didn’t make a lot of mistakes, but when we did, they were dandies. He (Wiercioch) was falling down while trying to beat that guy one-on-one instead of moving the puck like he should have. Things like that where Marc plays so cool and calm, it really has a tendency to calm the rest of the team down, especially the guys who are a little overly-hyper.”
The Tigers outshot Denver 10-7 in the second period, and had a 21-14 shots advantage through two periods.
CC broke Cheverie’s shutout bid at 2:20 with a power-play goal of their own. Gabe Guentzel got the puck in the right circle and fed a pass to Nate Prosser in the slot. The pass went off Brian Gifford’s stick and lay in the slot for Prosser to scoop it up and fire it low glove side past Cheverie.
The rest of the period featured a lot of back-and-forth play. Martin almost connected with Ruegsegger again, but Ruegsegger’s tip went wide. Joe Colborne broke a stick with an open shooting lane from the top of the slot.
At the other end, Bill Sweatt almost got a perfect back-door tip, but couldn’t get his stick on the puck. With 1:06 left in the game, CC called timeout and pulled Howe. On the next play, Denver’s John Lee got called for tripping at 19:13, giving the Tigers a six-on-four advantage. However, Denver played aggressive defense, and CC didn’t get a shot the rest of the game.
“We’ve worked on it, practiced it (the six-on-four), and we didn’t have enough bite,” said Owens. “I think part of it was they blocked a few shots. It’s disappointing, because we didn’t bear down.”
“It was a lot of traffic; our guys were out there blocking shots, and I couldn’t see much,” said Cheverie. “It was hectic, a battle. I had all the faith in the world in the guys.”
“We made things a lot more difficult for ourselves in the last minute by a completely blown neutral zone coverage that resulted in a penalty on us,” said Gwozdecky.
The two teams faceoff again Saturday in Denver. The Pioneers have struggled with the second game of a series this season, going 2-4-1 on Saturdays, while they are 8-0 on Fridays.
“That was a topic of conversation after the game in the locker room,” said Gwozdecky. “It’s your archrival, in your building, and it will be a wild atmosphere tomorrow night, with a lot at stake. We put a little distance between ourselves and our archrival. Tomorrow night, we have an opportunity to do more so. If you can’t be excited to play a second night of a back-to-back game, there’s something that’s not working for you. Hopefully, we’ll be able to overcome that lousy Saturday night start and performances we’ve had this year.”