DENVER — Mac Roy scored two goals and Clarke Saunders made 41 saves as the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers, winners of only one game all season, stunned the No. 11 Denver Pioneers, 3-2, in front of 4,842 fans at Magness Arena. The loss dropped the Pioneers into a three-way tie for 20th in the critical PairWise rankings, and may have irreparably damaged their chances of securing an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
“It’s really exciting coming into a building like this, and certainly all the guys were fired up to play tonight,” said Roy, a sophomore from British Columbia. “We were lucky to get a good start. We’re all about working hard and outworking the opponent.”
Denver got on the board first on a goal that Saunders probably wants back. Off a faceoff, Pioneers defenseman Joey LaLeggia got the puck at the left point and let fly a snap shot that Saunders misplayed. The puck bobbled off Saunders’ glove and dropped in the crease. Shawn Ostrow had his back to the boards when he spied the puck and backhanded it into the open net at 8:13.
“I think that any time you start out the way we did, where all of a sudden we were able to get two goals fairly early in the first period, things are good,” said Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky. “Certainly from that point on though, I thought we didn’t finish around the net, we didn’t finish some plays. We got a little bit reckless and a little bit lazy, and as a result gave them a chance to get back in the game.”
Denver built on its lead with a power-play goal by Ty Loney, who got the puck in the right circle and tried to shoot. The puck hit a Chargers defenseman and came back to Loney, who lifted a quick wrist shot top corner glove side at 12:44.
“The first two goals, I didn’t love them, but that’s our goalie and after that he played great,” said Chargers coach Chris Luongo. “I thought he could have been more of a wall there. That happens when Denver comes with bodies around the net. After that, he was as big as a house.”
After having solid play for the middle of the period, the Pioneers seemed to let down their guard just slightly, and it cost them. LaLeggia had the puck in Denver’s left corner and fanned on it while he was being forechecked by Justin Cseter, who tapped the puck off the boards through LaLeggia’s legs and picked it up, then circled around the net and out into the left circle and let fly a quick wrist shot that beat Juho Olkinuora at 16:18.
“The late goal in the first was huge because they got those two and throughout the season, when they get two goals, we tend to let up and the wheels start falling off, so it was important to get the momentum and end the period down by one and go back to work in the second,” said Roy.
In the second period, the Pioneers carried much of the play, getting 15 shots on net, including many from Drew Shore in and around the slot. However, Saunders was not forced to make very many difficult saves, and the Pioneers went 0-for-3 on the power play. Instead it was the Chargers who drew even late in the period while on a power play when Jeff Vanderlugt got the puck low on the left side and slid a perfect pass to Roy on the far post, who tapped it into the open net at 16:49.
“With a two-goal lead against any team, that’s disappointing to not be able to finish,” said Gwozdecky. “They played a smart road game and took advantage of the many turnovers that we had, a lot of unforced errors that we had. Simply put, we need to be better with the puck tomorrow night.”
Denver got a golden chance early in the third period to retake the lead, but squandered another power-play opportunity. Sensing that the Chargers were feeling opportunistic, Denver fired shots as often as it could, launching 16 on Saunders overall. During one flurry, Saunders made a couple of saves on Shore and Loney.
“He’s the best goalie I’ve ever played with, and it shows why he’s going to North Dakota next year,” said Roy of Saunders.
Roy scored the game-winning goal late in the period, stunning the crowd when he got a couple of whacks at the puck in the slot off a pass from Jamie Easton, finally poking it past Olkinuora at 17:19. Once again, poor play and a turnover killed Denver.
“It looked like an innocent play at first,” said Roy. “Easton did a great job of battling and winning possession the puck. I knew he was going to throw it there, so I just tried to battle my way in front of their ‘D.’ I had three whacks at it and it just crawled over the line.”
The Pioneers got one last power-play opportunity and a chance to tie the game in the final 31 seconds. Gwozdecky had already pulled Olkinuora right after the Chargers’ goal, so the power play was a six-on-four chance, but again many of the Pioneers shots came from the perimeter. As the horn sounded, the Chargers swarmed Saunders.
“We work awful hard to get effort out of them,” said Luongo. “Without it, we don’t have a chance. In a perfect world, that’s where it would be. You do your best and have a chance to win. There’s been a ton of distractions obviously. We’ve been very proud of how they’ve handled it, both on and off the ice. We’d like to have some more wins, but sometimes we lose sight of the fact that we’re a young team. They’ve done well in the classroom, they’ve done well on the campus with other students, and they’ve done well on the ice and they’ve worked hard. We’re proud of them.”