DENVER — The stage was set for a perfect celebration. The No. 1 Denver Pioneers, who had clinched the MacNaughton Cup last weekend, faced off against arch-rival Colorado College in front of 6,153 rabid fans at Magness Arena on Denver’s Senior Night with a chance to clinch the Gold Pan, awarded each year to the team that wins the season series between the two schools.
Behind a stingy defense and a 25-save effort from freshman goaltender Joe Howe, the Tigers spoiled Denver’s celebration, upsetting Denver 2-1. With the loss, two streaks came to an end for Denver. The Pioneers saw their 10-game win streak end, and also lost the first game of a series for the first time all year.
“Joe played well last weekend, and he was a stud tonight,” said Tigers’ coach Scott Owens. “He had to stand tall. I think the big thing for us tonight was our compete level was pretty good tonight. It was a good team win in the sense that a lot of guys, the fourth line, the fifth and sixth defensemen, the power play, everybody contributed to the win tonight, and that’s the only way you’re going to beat the No. 1 team in the country. This was a great building tonight; this was as good as I’ve seen this building, and now we’ve got to bring it back to World Arena.”
“Not the best mood to come off a loss to your arch-rival and be presented with the MacNaughton Cup, but I will say that first of all, what a great accomplishment,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “Tonight’s game personifies how difficult this conference is. These games go either way. Tonight, CC found a way to win. We had our chances. CC played well; I give them full credit. They put pressure on us. We had our chances real early in the game, we had our chances real late in the game. I think we had four great chances in the first three shifts.”
The game started with a frantic pace. Right off the opening draw, CC’s William Rapuzzi got a chance from the right side of the crease that he shot wide. The Pioneers stormed back, and on the ensuing pressure, Jesse Martin lifted a backhand that hit the right post and bounced out. Right after that, Tigers’ goaltender Joe Howe made a difficult save on a chance by John Lee from the left point.
After that frantic first two minutes, the game settled down somewhat. The Tigers seized the lead at 8:22 of the first on a harmless looking play. Nick Dineen carried the puck over the blue line down the left boards and took a shot from the left faceoff dot that William Wrenn blocked. However, the puck came right back to Dineen, and he slid a shot along the ice far side past Pioneers’ goaltender Marc Cheverie.
“Tonight, I think what helped us was getting out on top, getting that first goal,” said Owens.
At a break in the action at 8:37, right after CC’s Tyler Johnson was called for high sticking to put the Pioneers on a power play, Denver brought former Pioneers’ standout Paul Stastny out on the ice to a deafening roar from the crowd. Stastny wore his Team USA jersey and his silver medal from the 2010 Winter Olympics, and elicited a bigger roar when he pulled off his Team USA sweater to reveal his old Pioneers’ jersey underneath.
“I don’t have to give these guys speeches; they’re No. 1 in the nation for a reason,” said Stastny, when asked if he talked to the team before the game. “Anytime you play CC, they know what’s at stake. They’re a pretty deep team. You watch these games, they have three lines scoring, four lines that produce, and that’s what made us (the 2005 NCAA Championship team) so good. We had a deep team, and when our top players had a night off, there was another line that stepped up.”
With just over a minute left, Drew Shore just missed wide left on a shot from the top of the slot. On the ensuing clear, the Tigers caught DU in a change, resulting in a too-many-men penalty. Cheverie made a big save with 4.8 seconds left with Tigers’ captain Mike Testwuide screening him.
The penalty carried over to the start of the second, but Denver killed it off, and as the penalty expired, Pioneers’ captain Rhett Rakhshani passed the puck to defenseman Patrick Wiercioch near the right side boards at center ice. Wiercioch carried the puck into the Tigers’ zone and cut towards the middle, leaving a drop pass for Rakhshani, who took a step with the puck and then dished it back to Wiercioch at the left circle. Wiercioch’s wrist shot beat Howe high glove side at 1:05.
From there, though they didn’t have as many shots, the Pioneers seemed to have the stronger chances. Wiercioch just missed giving the Pioneers the lead when his one-time blast from the right circle went wide of the net, and Chris Knowlton had a good opportunity go wide from the right circle.
At 14:56 however, Denver defenseman Cody Brookwell got called on a questionable tripping penalty, and the Tigers capitalized. Rylan Schwartz took a shot from the left point that hit the skates of Matt Donovan in front of Cheverie. Testwuide got a shot off the rebound, and Cheverie blocked it and moved it back out with his stick, but Testwuide dished it to Bill Sweatt at the right post, and Sweatt fired it into the open net at 16:03.
“We finally were getting some pucks on net on the power play and moving it around pretty well,” said Sweatt. “Rylan made a great play to send it in there, and ‘Mikey’, I yelled his name, and he heard me and just gave me a gift back door. I couldn’t miss that one; it was a great play by ‘Mikey.’”
Early in the third period, Joe Colborne had two excellent chances to tie it. First, he got a pass at the right side of the blue line and stepped down on a partial breakaway, and Howe made a blocker save. The Tigers got called for a penalty on an after-the-whistle scrum, and the Pioneers worked the puck around, getting it to Colborne in the slot, but Howe again made the stop.
The Tigers had a great short-handed chance when Sweatt carried the puck in and cut to the middle, letting rip a shot that Cheverie stopped.
“That was a great penalty kill by everybody,” said Sweatt. “We were kind of disrupting them down low and pressuring them even when they were in their zone.”
Denver had several more good chances. Colborne had a shallow angle shot from the right side of the net gloved by Howe, and Knowlton just tipped a shot wide left in the crease.
CC had a chance to put the game out of reach when Tyler Ruegsegger was called for slashing at 16:08. However, Denver killed the penalty off, and, with a faceoff in the Tigers’ zone with 1:25 left, pulled Cheverie for the extra attacker. Howe made a pad save on a Rakhshani blast from the left circle, and the last 20 seconds saw a mad scramble, with Tigers’ defenseman Nate Prosser knocking away a chance as Howe dove back to cover a mostly open net.
“They made it tight there at the end; they made it dangerous,” said Sweatt. “‘Howie’ came up with some big saves, some guys came up with some blocked shots, and it was a great effort defensively at the end.”
After the game, as the Tigers celebrated and headed to their locker room, the Pioneers were presented with the MacNaughton Cup, and Rakhshani and Ruegsegger skated it around the ice with their teammates.
“It goes back to the tremendous accomplishment that it is to be able to win this league and win that Cup,” said Gwozdecky. “As disappointed as were to lose and obviously see our opponent celebrate, there’s no question we’ll get over that. We’ve got another opportunity tomorrow night to close out this season on a winning note, but more importantly, to have that presentation and have that understanding that we won in my mind the most difficult trophy in all college hockey is a significant, significant accomplishment for this team. I’m very proud of them.