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In a tight defensive battle, the No. 1 Denver Pioneers edged the Michigan Tech Huskies, 2-1, in front of 4,329 fans at Magness Arena. Marc Cheverie made 19 saves and Brian Gifford scored the game-winner for the Pioneers.
“First of all, it’s playoffs, and you expect tight, close, competitive games, and tonight it was one,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky.
Denver’s explosive offense didn’t take long to get uncorked. Anthony Maiani carried the puck over the blue line on the left side and fed a perfect pass to Jesse Martin streaking down the right side. Martin roofed it by Josh Robinson (38 saves) at 37 seconds. It was the fastest DU scored this year.
However, Tech weathered that storm and, right after Cheverie made a “Statue of Liberty” glove save on Bennett Royer, Carl Nielsen scored the first goal of his career on the ensuing faceoff when he stopped a clear at the middle of the blue line and backhanded it on net. The puck bounced a couple of times and beat Cheverie’s left pad at 15;31.
“I thought it was a great effort,” said Huskies’ coach Jamie Russell. “We lose Bennett Royer to injury, we lose Brett Olson to injury, we’re down to 10 forwards and that elevates a lot of other guys up the depth chart. We took a good step in our learning curve last weekend in North Dakota. Tough building to play in; it’s loud. They got rolling; Friday night, they scored three goals in 1:21 on us. We learned from that.”
Right after the goal, Robinson made a great save on a Tyler Ruegsegger breakaway, closing the five-hole.
The second period started slowly, and both teams made some sloppy moves with the puck. Denver had a golden chance at the 8:31 mark when they went on a power play, and Robinson robbed Joe Colborne from the slot on a one-timer.
“I thought our special teams was good,” said Russell. “We did a great job on the penalty kill. We didn’t get a lot of chances on the power play, but when we did, I thought we created some good offense there.”
Tech’s best chance came when Malcolm Gwilliam got the puck behind the Denver defense, but Paul Phillips poke-checked the puck away from him from behind before Gwilliam could get a shot off.
“They may be the last place team in the league, but it just goes to show you how good our league is,” Gifford said. “They’re playing desperate. They’ve elevated their game since the last time we played them.”
Phillips had a big part in Denver’s taking the lead late in the second. With the Pioneers generating sustained pressure, the Huskies tried to clear, but Phillips stretched to keep the puck in at the left point and got it to Chris Knowlton on the boards. Knowlton passed it to Drew Shore, who wheeled out from the boards and fed a perfect pass to Gifford at the right circle. Gifford one-timed the shot into a wide open net at 15:45.
“Chris did an excellent job on the boards,” said Gifford. “I was kind of down low and just stayed to the far side, and Drew came across. We worked on spreading out their defense and he found me back door.”
On the next shift, Tech’s Ricky Doriott was called for a five-minute major for contact to the head for hitting Ruegsegger on the left boards at 16:52. Denver generated some good chances, but couldn’t build on its lead. Tech finished off the kill at the start of the third, with Denver looking listless.
“I think you could probably see, from our standpoint, we weren’t as sharp offensively as we have been,” said Gwozdecky. “Part of the reason is Robinson; I thought he played well. The other part of the reason is over the last couple of days, we’ve been burning the midnight oil trying to get our exams done. When you’ve got guys staying up till 2:30 in the morning to study and get their exams and getting up early, no question it takes you out of your rhythm. We’re all through exams, that’s great. We won tonight, that’s great.”
Right after the penalty expired, Tech got a golden chance when Gwilliam had a one-timer from the left slot, but Cheverie made the save. The sustained pressure resulted in John Ryder taking a holding penalty.
“They clog up the middle really well, and it’s hard to get our transition game going,” said Cheverie. “They’re doing what they need to to stay with us.”
On the draw, Denver ended up with a great-short-handed chance when John Kivisto lost the puck at the blue line and Maiani streaked down on a partial breakaway, ripping a shot that Robinson stopped with the blocker.
“Josh was terrific; he played very well,” said Russell. “I thought both goals Denver got were very good goals on him. His rebounds were good. I thought he showed a lot of poise back there in a playoff game.”
On the ensuing rush back, Cheverie stoned Alex MacLeod on a one-timer from the left circle.
“Whenever I’m playing, I want to see the other guy do well,” said Cheverie. “I don’t like to see a game go because the other goalie didn’t play well. Whenever he makes a nice save, I say to myself ‘That’s a nice save.’ It’s not me versus him. It’s you versus the field. He played great.”
The Huskies, buoyed by the kill and their power play, started to generate more sustained pressure as the third progressed. Eric Kattelus beat a Denver defender at the blue line and streaked down the left side, getting off a shot that Cheverie stopped with his left pad.
During a mad scramble in the Denver zone with about eight minutes left, a rebound trickled behind Cheverie, but Ryder cleared it from the goalmouth.
With time winding down, Denver upped its forecheck, keeping the Huskies from pulling Robinson until about 30 seconds was left in the game. However, after winning a faceoff, the Huskies managed one last flurry, but Cheverie made the stops to preserve the win.
“We didn’t put a lot of volume of pucks on him, but I thought we did have a couple of very good scoring chances where he made really big saves at critical times,” said Russell.
“So many times we had chances and made one extra pass or decided to pass up on a shot; part of that is, I believe, our routine, with school,” said Gwozdecky. “With the win tonight, as tough as it was, we got it, and it’s going to give us a mental boost and hopefully we’ll be a little sharper offensively.”