DENVER — In its opening home game of the season, the No. 3 Denver Pioneers rallied to a hard-fought 4-2 victory over the Minnesota State Mavericks before a crowd of 5,966.
Senior forward Luke Salazar led the way with two goals, while junior captain Drew Shore scored the game-winner.
“No matter what time of year, no matter what the situation is, when these two teams get together, it always seems to be a hard-fought, nail-biter, and as banged up as they are, with so many of their key guys out of the lineup, they battled us and gave us a heck of a test,” said Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky.
The Mavericks got the only goal of the first off a costly Pioneers’ turnover. Dustin Jackson picked up the puck in the corner and backhanded it behind the net to John Ryder, who whacked at the puck and whiffed on it. Justin Jokinen picked it up and passed it back out to Evan Mosey at the right point, who unloaded a slap shot on net that Adam Murray stopped. However, Jean-Paul Lafontaine was cutting through the slot and picked up the rebound, lifting a backhand over Murray’s outstretched arm at 15:23 of the period.
“I thought we had a great effort all night long,” said Mavericks coach Troy Jutting. “Unfortunately, we lost another kid fairly early in the first period (Chase Grant). For one reason or another, the injury bug has really gotten after us. That’s seven of our kids down already in five games. I was real proud of the kids the way they battled and responded tonight.”
Denver had a couple of chances to tie it up late, first on an ineffectual power play, then on a turnover in the Mavericks’ zone that allowed Jarrod Mermis to pick up the puck and walk in on net. However, Austin Lee made the stop to preserve the lead heading into the first intermission.
“I thought we were rather careless and made life easy for them in the first period,” said Gwozdecky. “We turned the puck over not only in our zone, but in the offensive zone. I wasn’t really happy with the start of our game and how we played.”
Denver started to press in the second period and dominate more of the play, generating sustained pressure and tiring the Mavericks’ defense. It finally paid off at 9:54, when after several good chances, Salazar picked up a rebound of a Jason Zucker shot to Lee’s right and fired it into the open net.
“I pretty much just tried to drive the net and draw their D-man toward me,” said Salazar. “Zucker shot it and I don’t know what it hit, but I just turned around and slapped it in. I think we did a pretty good job in the second period coming out with some more focus, more energy.”
The Mavericks had two good chances to get the momentum back on two Zucker penalties, including one at the 17:00-minute mark when they kept the puck in the offensive zone for almost a minute. Murray made a point blank stop on a Johnny McInnis one-timer from the right side of the slot that loomed big when, after the power play ended, Paul Phillips carried it up the right side two-on-one with Salazar and fed him a cross-crease pass that Salazar tapped into the open net near side at 19:12.
“It was pretty much all Paul’s great pass,” said Salazar. “I just put my stick on the ice and tipped it right in. I had an open net, so it wasn’t too difficult.”
“Playing with those two guys, I would want to be able to be like Luke,” said Gwozdecky. “To feed off those guys and find myself in open positions, that’s part of his goal. We want to be able to get him in position in that scoring area where he can do the things he is very good at.”
Fans barely had time to enjoy the lead before the Mavericks tied it up again. Early in the third, Zach Lehrke cut toward the slot with the puck and managed to get off a one-handed backhand poke at the puck. Though it didn’t have much on it, it handcuffed Murray and slipped through his five-hole at 1:17 of the third.
The Pioneers’ power play, which had gone 0-10 in its first two games and 0-1 in the first period, finally got untracked and got the lead back when Drew Shore let fly a snap shot from the right point that hit Lee’s right pad and trickled into the net at 6:18.
“I thought their first line played real well and scored when they had to,” said Jutting.
Things got testy late in the game when a series of penalties, including Zucker’s third of the night, gave the Mavericks a four-on-three power play. On the kill, Pioneers forward Nick Shore split the defense and looked to have a partial breakaway when he was hauled down. Instead of negating the penalty however, the officials gave matching minors, calling Shore for embellishment and Matt Leitner for hooking.
Despite the continued chances, Murray made saves when he needed, and an aggressive Pioneers penalty kill kept the Mavericks from getting good chances down low.
Nick Shore got some redemption at the end of the game when he broke in with Beau Bennett. Bennett had a shot, but passed over to Shore instead, who got the empty-net goal with 41.7 seconds left to clinch it. It was Bennett’s second assist of the night.
“We didn’t have that many power plays,” said Jutting. “I think we had four shots on the first one and had some quality opportunities and hit the post on another one. We’ve got a lot of young guys out there; the one power play has four freshman on it. For us right now, we have to get the bounce and the break there and have the puck go in instead of hit the post and go out.”
One possible trend Denver may want to correct is giving up the first goal, which it did for the second game this season. It was a frequent happening last season as well.
“What concerns me is the end result and the process that gets us to that point,” said Gwozdecky. “I think there are certain things we can do to start better. It’s part of the process.”
Luke Salazar discusses Denver’s win
Mavericks coach Troy Jutting discusses Minnesota State’s loss
Denver coach George Gwozdecky discusses his team’s win