ALBANY, N.Y. — RIT capitalized on a slow start by Denver with an early goal, battled hard for the next 45 minutes to hold the lead before adding some insurance, and then senior netminder Jared DeMichiel was able to stand tall in the waning minutes to vindicate the Atlantic Hockey champion for the second straight year.
“It is a great opportunity, but at the same time, we missed the opportunity to go out on Spring Break, so I’m pretty disappointed about that,” joked DeMichiel. “I don’t think we have to prove (that we belong). We’ve already proven it to ourselves that we are a good team. I don’t know that Atlantic Hockey will ever get the respect it deserves. Last year, Air Force beat Michigan; we beat Denver, but I don’t think it will ever really matter. It’s the same way in basketball with big conferences like the ACC and Big East and then the mid-majors.”
The Tigers grabbed a lead they would never relinquish just 5:02 into the opening frame. Defenseman Chris Tanev grabbed the puck off Cody Brookwell’s stick at the blue line during an attempted breakout, then skated in on the right wing and released a wrister from the top of the circle that beat Marc Cheverie stick-side high.
Denver’s Chris Nutini, a strong defensive defenseman and already banged up with a high ankle sprain, suffered an MCL injury early in the first period, which forced the Pioneers to play with their bench a man short the rest of the game.
The Times Union Center was virtually empty but for one corner filled with orange RIT sweaters for much of the early going, which may have contributed to Denver’s sluggish start. DU had only an 11-9 shot advantage after the first before outshooting the Tigers two-to-one the rest of the way. In the latter two periods, the majority of Denver’s 29 shots came in the grade-’A’ area.
“My text messages have been going crazy here,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson. “At home, we have tremendous fan support and it excites us to play before a packed building, but there are other times we do play in empty buildings. It’s like when we got here, we were assigned (locker) room four, which is supposed to be the worst, but the guys don’t know any difference. You’ve got to be self-motivated to play this time of year. We did a good job of playing with a lot of poise even though they were throwing pressure on us. There was a sense of calmness on the bench and on the ice for us in general versus 15 guys on the bench yelling at the five guys on the ice what to do.”
Denver’s best chance to tie the score came early in the third on a two-on-none with Joe Colborne and Matt Glasser. Colborne found Glasser at the right time on the right wing doorstep, but he lifted the shot over the cage. The Pioneers had another shot when they were set up in the RIT end and Rhett Rakhshani fanned on a shot off a cross-crease pass with nothing but mesh in front of him.
“There was nothing to be impressed about because we had seen them on tape and talked to a bunch of people who knew they could play,” said DU coach George Gwozdecky. “They won their conference and conference playoff and deserved to be in the tournament. We knew it was going to be a competitive game close to their campus. There was nothing we saw that we did not already anticipate. Obviously, the critical error was giving them the puck on an uncontested turnover (for their first goal).”
It was a game in which the CCHA officiating crew largely let the two teams play. Only five penalties were called in the game, two against Denver and three against RIT, and three of those came in the third. Both squads ultimately tallied one goal while up a man.
The scoreboard finally changed when RIT made it a 2-0 at 12:36 of the third period on a power play. The play began to develop when Dan Ringwald found Andrew Favot at the left faceoff dot with a pass from the point. Favot continued the game of tic-tac-toe by directing the puck across the DU zone and down low to Cameron Burt on the back door for the easy open-net burial.
Denver got that one right back on its own power play two minutes later. Patrick Wiercioch made a pass along the blue line to Tyler Ruegsegger going left to right. The senior assistant captain took a shot that was blocked right in front of the net, but Colborne was right there to pick up the rebound and put it home over the glove of DeMichiel.
The Pioneers continued to pour it on over the last five minutes, but DeMichiel and the Tigers defense saved their best for last, breaking up chances by Kyle Ostrow and Drew Shore right in the danger zone.
RIT advances to the East Regional final Saturday night to face the winner of the Cornell-UNH game at 6:30 p.m. in Albany.