DENVER — For a while, it appeared as if the University of Denver Pioneers were in store for another poor Saturday night effort in the final game of the Wells Fargo Denver Cup.
Instead, the No. 2 Pioneers, buoyed by the leadership of tournament most valuable player Rhett Rakhshani and a four-goal third period, came from behind to beat the No. 5 Boston College Eagles, 4-3, to capture their 12th Denver Cup title.
“For 45 minutes of the game, I thought we were playing on our toes, making some terrific plays, and we received excellent goaltending through that stretch, but then it just seemed like we were back on our heels and Denver forechecked hard,” said BC coach Jerry York. “It led to most of their goals.”
The Pioneers had the first quality chance 7:10 into the game when Anthony Maiani and Jesse Martin broke in on the BC net on a short-handed two-on-one. However, Eagles’ netminder John Muse got a piece of Martin’s high shot with his toe.
Just about two minutes later, the Eagles got on the scoreboard first when Joe Whitney knocked in a Jimmy Hayes rebound past Denver goaltender Marc Cheverie (28 saves).
Denver had a couple of good chances to tie the game up on a mid-second period power play, but Muse stayed strong in the BC net and instead, the Eagles took a 2-0 lead with 3:57 remaining in the frame. Tommy Cross took a shot from the top of the left circle that deflected off the stick of Pioneers’ defenseman William Wrenn, past Cheverie and in.
However, the Pioneers were able to cut the Eagles’ lead in half just thirty seconds into the third period. Rakhshani skated into the zone and let a shot fly that beat Muse under his right shoulder.
“I don’t know how the other games went and how the other plays looked around the country, but in my mind, he was the best college hockey player on the ice this weekend,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “I don’t know if there would be anyone better than he was.”
Denver very nearly tied it up on a power play flurry in front of Muse about five minutes later, but instead, BC’s Brian Gibbons was able to break down all alone short-handed on Cheverie. Gibbons stopped just short of the crease, waited patiently for Cheverie to slide out of position and tapped it in the net just past Cheverie’s outstretched arm to make it 3-1 Eagles.
The Pioneers didn’t let the change in momentum hurt them, however, as they scored a goal of their own 1:09 later. Drew Shore won a faceoff in the BC zone back to John Lee, who blasted a shot from the point through traffic that deflected back off of Shore low stick-side past Muse (35 saves).
“The Brian Gibbons short-handed goal there was a big-time play by our top player for us,” said York, of his top scorer (seven goals, 11 assists), “but the last 14, 15 minutes of the game we played back on our heels and had trouble breaking the puck out of the zone.”
“It was a two-goal swing; we thought we had tied it to make it 2-2 and all of the sudden they score that shorty and really, there’s two ways you can respond,” said Gwozdecky. “You can wilt and feel sorry for yourself, or you can keep battling. Fortunately, this team kept battling. You could see the flood coming and at times, it certainly seemed like a flood.”
From that point on, it was all Denver, as DU had another goal mouth flurry with eight minutes remaining, but to no avail. However, on their third (reviewed) goal mouth rush of the period, the Pioneers finally struck gold when Rakhshani knocked the puck in past Muse for his second of the night and fourth of the weekend to tie the game at three with 5:16 remaining.
“We had a very heavy forecheck going on and obviously gambling at times,” said Gwozdecky. “At 3-3, I said, ‘Boys, we’re going out to win this game; we’re not going to change our forecheck,’ knowing full well that our backside’s opening up.”
Then, 121 seconds later, Joe Colborne capped off the third period comeback by knocking in a Rakhshani rebound past Muse to give the Pioneers a 4-3 lead.
York yanked Muse with 1:06 left to try to tie it back up, but by that point, the Pioneers weren’t backing down.
“Other than the last five seconds where guys were falling, I thought it was a pretty well executed third period over all,” said Gwozdecky.
The Pioneers next host the University of Alaska-Anchorage while the Eagles travel back to Boston to play cross-town rival Boston University at Fenway Park.