In a thriller with many momentum swings and improbable goals, it was almost poetic that Anthony Maiani, the No. 5 Denver Pioneers’ leading scorer, scored a goal with 16.8 seconds left in overtime to lead Denver past a pesky Michigan Tech squad.
Before the Huskies scored the tying goal with 55 seconds left in the third, Maiani clanged a backhand off the crossbar that would have give the Pioneers some breathing room.
“Poetic, yeah; I think it was poetic,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “At times, in games, you have a great chance and somehow it doesn’t turn out for you, and you’ve got to come back to the bench and you have to say, I have to be ready. That situation may happen again and you have to be ready. You can’t be thinking about the past, or be worried about it or frustrated about it or anxious about it. You have to park it and move forward the next time it happens.”
As time was running down, Jesse Martin picked up the puck along the left side boards, spinning to escape a Huskies’ defender, and fed the puck over to Maiani in the right circle. Maiani had a wide-open net and fired it home.
“I just came straight from the bench and there was a scramble on the side of the net, Martin made a nice pass over and I had a wide-open net,” said Maiani. “I thought that was going in (the shot in the third) and it could have given us a cushion. It went off the post and went in and a couple of minutes later they get that tying goal, so I was very disappointed, but happy I got that extra goal.”
The first period started slowly, with both the Huskies and Pioneers trying to feel each other out. Denver looked rusty, perhaps suffering a hangover from their pasting by BU last weekend. The Huskies, as they like to do, played a tight, defensive style in their own zone, keeping Denver from generating too many shots.
“I think overall, we were trying to make it more of a good lesson learned,” said Gwozdecky of the game against BU. “Both games last weekend, to be prepared, to play harder with more intensity right off the bat, and to maintain that level throughout every shift you play. We didn’t do that tonight. Again, I’m sitting here after a game, just like I did last Saturday night, really, last Friday night too, saying I’m surprised at how our team started the game.”
The Huskies struck first at 7:18 of the period. Taking a pass from Eli Vlaisavljevich in his own zone, Derek Kitti skated up the left side boards virtually unmolested, beating defenseman Patrick Mullen at the Pioneers’ blue line and skating down to the lower part of the left faceoff circle, where he let fly with a wrist shot that beat Pioneers’ goalie Marc Cheverie high glove side.
“I thought we came out, we got a great start,” said Huskies’ coach Jamie Russell. “First shift, we hit the post about eight seconds into the hockey game. I thought we were pretty defensively sound. We didn’t give up a lot of odd-man rushes. We moved the puck out of our own end and were able to generate some chances.”
Denver came out with a lot more fire in the second period. Matt Glasser just missed a chance early with a wide open net when he was unable to corral the bouncing puck.
“I think they came out with a lot of intensity and were beating us in battles and finishing checks and we weren’t doing those things,” said Pioneers’ assistant captain Rhett Rakhshani. “We talked about it in between periods and coach addressed it and told us to figure it out. It starts with your intensity and preparation and then skill takes over. You can’t focus on skill; you have to focus on being prepared to play.”
Ultimately, it was the captain who broke the Pioneers out of their funk. J.P. Testwuide broke in two-on-one with Kyle Ostrow. With a wide-open shooting lane, Testwuide instead dished it to Ostrow on his right. Ostrow seemed surprised, and the puck bounced off his stick, and it looked like the Pioneers had lost a golden opportunity. Instead, Ostrow backhanded the puck back out in front as he crossed over the goal line, and the puck came back to Testwuide, who banked it into the open net at 3:33.
Tech regained the lead near the midway point on a defensive breakdown by the Pioneers. Off a dump in, the puck hit the back boards and came out near the right side boards, where Jordan Baker picked it up. Baker spied Alex Gagne cruising down the far side wide open and slide a pass through the crease to him, and Gagne easily tapped it into the open net at 8:10.
After 30 minutes of penalty-free hockey, the penalties started coming in waves, and it ultimately cost the Huskies. Before that however, Denver’s string of power-play futility reached 0-31 with a stilted power play at the 8:37 mark.
However, at 12:35, Denver’s freshmen combined to tie the score. Defenseman Patrick Wiercioch raced down the right side boards and flipped the puck out front to Luke Salazar as he reached the crease. Salazar deflected the puck on net and took a whack at the goalie as the rebound popped up, where Joe Colborne knocked it into the net. After an official review, the goal stood.
Late in the second, the Huskies almost took the lead again when Bennett Rover fired a wrist shot from low in the left circle, but Cheverie just got his glove on it.
Gwozdecky made a change in his lines late in the second, putting Tyler Ruegsegger together with Rakhshani and Maiani, and the combination almost immediately paid dividends.
“I think the first two periods, our top two lines didn’t seem to have a lot of continuity, in the attack, coming up the ice real strung out, and pucks were bouncing over sticks,” said Gwozdecky. “Rhett was playing well, Ruegsegger was playing well, Maiani was playing well, and I just thought, let’s get those three guys together. The decision was made to flip the two centers, and as I said on the radio, sometimes you come in, you make an adjustment here, you make an adjustment there, and nothing works. Tonight, that adjustment worked to our advantage. Both lines it helped.”
DU started the third with the momentum and almost immediately pressured the Huskies. Just two minutes in, Tyler Ruegsegger stole the puck, diving behind the net to knock it off the stick of Justin St. Louis. Ruegsegger popped back up, grabbed the puck and fed it to Rhett Rakhshani in front, and Rakhshani had a great look with no one defending him, but Nolan made the save.
“That was a little frustrating; I was definitely thinking about what I could have done differently on that,” said Rakhshani. “It was nice to get a second change there thanks to Tyler. Tyler’s playing great; he was all over the puck, making great passes, and we started clicking a little bit.”
Rakhshani got his chance later, combining with Ruegsegger for a pretty power-play goal. After Colborne knocked the puck free low on the right side boards, Ruegsegger picked it up and skated in towards the goal line, and he fed a perfect pass to Rakhshani on the right post. Rakhshani tapped it in to the wide-open net at 13:00.
“I’m not going to say that we’ve found the answers,” said Gwozdecky of the team’s power play. “As I said, talk to me in a month. It helped us tonight. At times, it looked pathetic, but at the same point in time, no power play is going to bat .1000. I think we went two-for six; 33 percent is pretty good.”
Buoyed by the goal, the Pioneers continued to pressure Nolan and play tight defense, leading up to Maiani’s crossbar clanker with 2:42 left.
It looked like that wouldn’t matter as time wound down. However, at the one-minute mark, the Pioneers failed to clear the puck from their zone, and Geoff Kinrade won a battle with Glasser along the right boards and wheeled down into the faceoff circle. From near the bottom of the circle, Kinrade fired a wrist shot that snuck past Cheverie on the inside post at 19:55.
“I thought our guys showed a lot of heart and character,” said Russell. “We battled right to the end and we got the tying goal. It’s a pretty tough way to lose, 16 seconds left in overtime. We had the lead, we had to fight back, they tied it up; it was back and forth.”
“It was disappointing right at the end of the game, but I think every athlete knows you have to shake it off and you still have five minutes of hockey to play right after that.” said Rakhshani.
Before Maiani’s heroics, the Pioneers almost won the game in the first minute when Patrick Mullen intercepted a pass in the near the middle of blue line and wheeled in. Mullen spied Colborne wide open down low and fed him a pass, but Colborne missed the puck on the attempted deflection into the wide open net.