There were a lot of unknowns for the Denver Pioneers coming into this season. New coach, new conference, 10 freshmen, and some big names gone. Yet this Pioneers team accomplished something never done before in the history of the program on Saturday night when they opened the season with a second consecutive shutout win.
“I still don’t think we were good in our defensive zone, but our goalie was really good,” said first-year Denver coach Jim Montgomery. “The senior leadership of (David) Makowski, (Josiah) Didier and (Joey) LaLeggia back there, two juniors and one senior, was awesome, because it really settled things down, really calmed the boys, and when we do get possession of the puck, we break out quick.”
Sam Brittain stopped 28 shots, three defensemen scored, and the Pioneers power play struck three times in a 4-0 win over Merrimack at Magness Arena.
“I’m really proud of the guys,” said Brittain, one of only two seniors on the team. “We did a great job. We have brand new systems this year, but everybody is buying in and working hard. We have a lot of work left to do, but it’s a great start, and I think the guys are real confident headed into next weekend.”
The first period was all about special teams. Denver converted, Merrimack didn’t. With Denver on a five-on-three power play, Brittain was forced to make a big save when a Denver defender fell down near the offensive blue line, sending Merrimack the other way on a three-on-one. However, off Brittain’s save, Ty Loney broke back up the left side boards on a two-on-one with LaLeggia. Loney held the puck until he could slide it around a sliding Merrimack defender to LaLeggia in the slot, who deked to his backhand and lifted it top corner at 2:30.
“I think that the initial two-on-one on the five-on-three was a huge swing,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy. “This time of year, you’re dealing with situations sometimes that you haven’t dealt with in a while. One of two things can happen: we can either shoot that puck earlier, which gives our guy a chance to skate in to it, or when he recognizes that he hasn’t shot, he can hold up a little bit, but still create a two-on-one, but not give the odd-man rush back. Kudos to Sam for making a great save.”
“Bounces are going our way, and our goalie is making great saves,” said Montgomery. “Again, you said breakaway and a three-on-one. We had a five-on-three, they had a three-on-one, and we went the other way and executed. If it’s not for Sam, it might be 2-0 and we are digging ourselves out of a hole.”
Merrimack meanwhile, couldn’t get its power play untracked against a stifling Pioneers defense that kept the puck to the outside and limited shot chances on Merrimack’s two opportunities.
“For large stretches of the game, I thought we dominated,” said Dennehy. “They were very opportunistic. Even their second goal was a good play by their guy to find the weak-side guy, but we had a breakdown, a young guy, first time in that situation, and he didn’t release when he should have released, and a team like Denver is going to hurt you in that situation.”
Merrimack had a golden chance to tie it early in the second when Josh Meyers had a breakaway. Meyers made a move to his backhand and tried to beat Brittain five-hole, but Brittain made the save.
“It kind of caught me off guard,” said Brittain. “He came in so quick and I was able to just get a piece of my glove on it, but he made a great shot.”
That save proved huge, as the Pioneers’ power play soon struck again, and again it was a defenseman who scored. Off a faceoff win by Matt Marcinew, Will Butcher got the puck at the left point off a pass from Trevor Moore, took two strides toward the goal and beat Merrimack goalie Sam Marotta low glove side with a wrist shot at 3:33.
“Sometimes the bounces go your way, and sometimes they don’t, but when you’re working hard, more often than not they’ll be going your way,” said Brittain. “I think they’re really starting to come together in practice, and it’s starting to show.”
The Pioneers made it 3-0 at 14:56 when after sustained pressure, Makowski let fly a slap shot from the middle of the blue line that beat Marotta low.
“Our defensemen are really talented; they are 200-foot hockey players that can make plays anywhere, even from the goal line in the offensive zone,” said Montgomery. “It’s special, and I think everyone in the country knows we have a special ‘D’ corps.”
Any hopes for a Merrimack comeback were negated midway through the third when Jordan Heywood got a five-minute major and game misconduct for checking from behind. Denver notched its third power-play goal of the night when Quentin Shore won a battle along the left side boards down low and broke toward the net, dishing it to Daniel Doremus, who notched his second goal of the weekend with a quick shot that beat Rasmus Tirronen, who had entered the game at the start of the third.
“We played way better today than we did last night,” said Dennehy, whose team hosts Mercyhurst at home for a pair next weekend. “If we play the way we played today, we’ll win plenty of games.”
“We just need more repetitions,” said Montgomery, whose team travels to Alaska next weekend to play Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage in the Alaska Gold Rush. “We need to spend more time doing the details of our game. I don’t think it’s only our defensive zone; our puck pressure is not where it needs to be. It’s really improved in a week, but we need more repetitions so players get instinctual when they play faster.”