DENVER — In a game that wasn’t decided until the final minute, the No. 2 Denver Pioneers edged the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves 3-2. Tyler Ruegsegger scored the game-winner with 38 seconds left.
“We found out a lot about our team tonight,” said Ruegsegger. “We did not play well yesterday at all. We knew tonight was going to be harder. We didn’t play a great game tonight, but we worked hard. I think that’s important. The guys cared tonight, and that culminated in that last goal.”
Denver came out much stronger in the first period than last night’s lackluster effort, seeming to take coach George Gwozdecky’s words after Friday’s game to heart. Matt Glasser had a breakaway opportunity early, forcing Jon Olthuis to make a right pad save. A little later, Olthuis robbed Patrick Wiercioch from the slot.
“I thought tonight’s game, we played much better,” said Gwozdecky. “We worked harder; we played with more intensity, and yet it was a battle right to the end. I thought the Seawolves did a great job of cutting off passing lanes, cutting off shooting lanes. They blocked so many of our shots. It took big-time plays from our seniors to make things happen.”
At the other end, Marc Cheverie was sharp when he needed to be, but he didn’t face too many shots. The Seawolves best scoring chance came on a power play on a tip in the slot, but Cheverie got his left pad down.
Late in the period, the Pioneers drew two consecutive power plays. On the first, they didn’t do too much, but their top line was much more effective on the second, keeping the Seawolves bottled up in their zone and generating sustained pressure. It finally paid off late. Rhett Rakhshani fired a one-timer from the bottom of the left circle off a pass. Olthuis made the pad stop, but the puck came back to Rakhshani, who had fallen to his knees. Rakhshani tapped a pass back to Wiercioch at the right point, and Wiercioch ripped a slap shot inside the near post at 18:35, giving the Pioneers the lead heading into the second period.
The second period featured more sharp defensive play, as well as some close calls. Rakhshani hit the left goal post on a power-play chance from the left circle.
The Seawolves had their best chances late. First, Cheverie made a tough save on a Kevin Clark shot from the left slot. Clark drew a penalty, and on the ensuing power play, Tommy Grant left a drop pass for Alex Gellert coming down from the right point, and Gellert one-timed a shot that hit the left post, came out, hit the back of Cheverie’s legs, then ricocheted off them and hit the right post, where it was cleared.
It looked like the Pioneers might preserve their lead, but a late power play changed the complexion of the game. With the puck tied up along the left boards, Pioneers’ defenseman John Lee turned it over while trying to pass it to John Ryder, and as the puck came to the left faceoff dot, Mickey Spencer spun and fired it high glove side past Cheverie at 18:59.
“After that long of a layoff, and first place team in the league and second in the country on the road, I thought we played great,” said Seawolves’ coach Dave Shyiak. “It was almost there to win, but penalties honestly added up. You have to factor in playing the first place team on the road, they’re going to get the calls, and they certainly got the calls tonight.”
With just 17 seconds left in the period, Seawolves’ defenseman Nils Backstrom was called for holding, setting up carry-over power play time for the Pioneers.
After killing off the early power play, Alaska had a great chance when Spencer got a breakaway coming down the left side, but Cheverie made the stop with his right shoulder.
After weathering that storm, the Pioneers started to seize some momentum on another power play. Rakhshani had a blast from the left circle stopped by a sliding Olthuis, and John Ryder hit the left goal post with a wrist shot from the point.
Right after the power play expired, Joe Colborne got another big goal for the Pioneers. Lee made up for his earlier gaff by ripping a wrist shot from the right point that Colborne tipped in the slot past Olthuis at 9:38.
The lead didn’t last long. Clark skated the puck behind the net and tried to pass it through the crease. Cheverie had his stick down, and the puck went off it and popped up in mid-air, where Nick Haddad swatted it out of the air into the net at 10:58.
“They’re a good team; I think people are deceived if they see them at the bottom of the polls or in our league and think they’re not a good team,” said Ruegsegger. “They’re big, they’re physical and they play their systems really well.”
It seemed the game was destined for OT, as Denver pressured but couldn’t get a goal. Colborne and Ruegsegger broke in two-on-one and Colborne feathered a perfect pass through the defenseman’s legs to Ruegesegger, who couldn’t control the pass.
“He made a wonderful pass,” said Ruegsegger. “It was right on my tape. I got screened by the defenseman; I couldn’t see the puck coming. It hit my stick before I knew it. That was a big pass, and I have to be ready to bury that. I told myself I’d get another chance and to stay positive and Rhett put it right on my tape.”
Wiercioch then got a partial breakaway, but couldn’t control the puck as he made a move.
With under a minute left, Ryder kept the puck in at the right point and sent it behind the net, where Rakhshani got it and backhanded a pass to Ruegsegger in the right circle. Ruegsegger one-timed the pass high stick side at 19:21, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
“We’ve played together quite a while now, four years, and we see the ice very similarly,” said Ruegsegger. “I knew once the puck went there I yelled for it and I knew he would put it right on my tape and I had to be prepared to bury the shot.”
“They capitalized on our mistake,” said Shyiak. “We had a blown assignment. Our guy got beat off the wall.”
“Obviously, they (Rhett, Joe and Tyler) got two huge goals for us in the third period, but as better as they were tonight, they were that bad last night,” said Gwozdecky. “They were without doubt our poorest line. They were motivated and felt ashamed by that, and rightly so. They were much better tonight.”
The Seawolves called timeout after the goal, looking to draw up a play, but the Pioneers forechecked aggressively and kept the Seawolves in their zone, securing the win.
After the final horn, a scrum erupted with all five skaters getting into shoving matches. Two Seawolves came off the bench as well, including forward Chris Crowell, who punched Ruegsegger. Crowell and Jared Tuton, as well as Ryder and William Wrenn, were assessed game disqualification penalties.
“First time I’ve been in something like that to be honest,” said Ruegsegger. “It’s a little scary, but at the same time you’re in it and you have to defend yourself. Sometimes you have to get a guy so your teammates don’t get double-teamed.”
“I think that happens maybe too often,” said Gwozdecky of the after-the-whistle action. “One team is frustrated and one team is excited. The only thing you worry about is what happened later on. You have players on the ice at the end of the game, that’s not the issue. When you have players come on the ice to go to their goaltender, nasty, ugly things can erupt that we don’t want to have happen. We’re glad that didn’t happen. Initially, what I saw is you had your group of players on the ice, and probably 15 seconds later a couple of their guys came on the ice, and I don’t think they’re going out on the ice to be peacemakers. That’s when I decided, OK, I’ve had enough; I’m going to make sure first of all that our guys stay, and then see if we can break it up.”