DENVER — In a very uneven contest, the No. 13 Denver Pioneers edged the Bemidji State Beavers, 3-1, before 4,304 fans at Magness Arena. Matt Donovan and Jason Zucker each had a goal and assist in the win.
“I don’t think it was our best performance, but you can certainly see the effects of a long week of school and exams,” said Pioneers head coach George Gwozdecky. “This is the most challenging week of the entire hockey season, the exam week. Our routine for the day leading up to Friday and Saturday is completely abnormal. Certainly, you could tell by our execution offensively we just weren’t good.”
Perhaps it was the pre-holiday malaise, or the half-empty arena, in addition to exams, but Denver came out flat, playing lifeless hockey. They didn’t get a single shot on net until over 12 minutes were gone in the period, and they constantly misfired on passes. From the press box, you could hear Gwozdecky screaming at his players to get in the game.
“We weren’t used to their cycle,” said Donovan. “They cycled the puck a lot more than any team we’ve faced. That caught us by surprise.”
Bemidji took advantage of Denver’s poor energy at 7:54 on a poetic-justice goal. Jamie MacQueen ripped a slap shot from the top of the right circle that hit the left post and ricocheted out. However, it came right to Sam Rendle in the left circle, and he fired it into the open net before Pioneers goalie Sam Brittain could slide back across.
“I thought we played pretty well away from the puck,” said Bemidji head coach Tom Serratore. “It was nice to convert on our first shot. A lot of the game was played through the neutral zone. Both teams got pucks deep and there wasn’t a lot of sustained pressure. It was more of a chess match.”
Late in the period, Denver finally started connecting on some passes and displaying a good effort. It paid off at 16:29 on a nifty series of behind-the-back passes. Anthony Maiani carried it into the zone up the left center of the ice and slid a behind-the-back pass to David Makowski on the right side of the slot. Makowski took one stride and slid a behind-the-back pass to Donovan coming down the slot. Donovan had an open shooting lane and beat Matthieu Dugas low glove side.
“We came out a little slow, but we caught that rush and luckily made a few drop passes, and eventually I got the puck and put it in the net, so that gave us a little burst,” said Donovan.
Unfortunately, Denver couldn’t build any momentum on the goal, and much of the second period had long stretches of non-action. Both teams struggled to generate any flow through the neutral zone. More than midway through the second period, shots on goal were only 13-7 Denver for the entire game.
Late in the period, Donovan helped Denver grab the lead, one-timing a pass by Drew Shore that was tipped by Jason Zucker past Dugas low stick side at 17:05 to bring a roar from the somnambulant fans. Denver generated a few more shots with the momentum off the goal, but Dugas made the saves.
“Great players have that ability to be able to rise to the occasion even though they haven’t played very well and make some big plays, and I thought Matt did that,” said Gwozdecky. “Matt at times really struggled, but he has the ability to make plays.”
The third period finally saw some sustained offensive pressure, and both goalies made strong saves. Dugas robbed a tip-in try by Beau Bennett from the left side of the crease off a brilliant pass by Kyle Ostrow. Bennett’s tip was headed into the net, but Dugas got enough of his glove on it that the puck dropped behind him but outside the goal line.
At the other end, Brittain wasn’t tested as often, but he made the big stops when called upon. Brad Hunt got the puck in the slot on a two-on-one and tried to beat Brittain high stick side, but Brittain made the stop.
“It’s definitely difficult when you’re not getting a lot of shots,” said Brittain. “You have to be ready. They got some guys who can put the puck in the net and you have to make sure you’re on your game all the time and make sure you stay in it.”
Any hope of a comeback ended with 26.6 seconds left. The Beavers pulled their goalie and started to generate some pressure, but Drew Shore dumped the puck into the far corner from the red line, Zucker raced in and got the puck and passed it to a wide-open Luke Salazar in the crease, who tapped it into the empty net.
“Those are the kind of games where you really have to battle your emotions and keep them in check,” said Gwozdecky. “As difficult as the game was for us, and at times frustrating as it was for us, we found a way to win.”