March 21, 2008
WCHA Semifinals
Second Season a Hit for New-Look Pioneers

By Jess Myers

Denver 3, North Dakota 1
Team Goal Str
Time Assists
First Period
No scoring

Second Period

1-DU Rhett Rakhshani (14) PP
5:58 P. Mullen, T. Bozak
Third Period
1-NDK Taylor Chorney (3) EV
6:16 D. Zajac, J. Marto
2-DU Anthony Maiani (7) EV
18:40 unassisted
3-DU Matt Glasser (6) EN
19:54 T. Ruegsegger
DU: Peter Mannino, 60:00, 32 saves, 1 GA
NDK: J-P Lamoureux, 58:53, 27 saves, 2 GA, 1 ENG
Penalties: DU 7/14; NDK 7/14
Power Plays: DU 1-4; NDK 0-4
Attendance: 16,768

ST. PAUL, Minn. — There were some dark times for Denver in January and February, but all seems much better in March. On Friday the snow was falling outside the rink, but in the world of the “new” Pioneers, everything was bright and sunny.

After a 17-4-0 start, the Pioneers lost two of their top scorers for all or part of the remainder of the regular season, and went 5-9-1 down the stretch, including losses in their last three regular season games. But the playoffs are a new season, and in many ways, the Pioneers’ 3-1 win over North Dakota on Friday was indicative of how they’re a new team.

According to Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky, the successful transition began when they found an answer to the repeated questions about who’d replace the missing offense in their lineup. The answer, as it turns out, was nobody.

“We had a number of our regular forwards who felt they needed to carry more of the load on their shoulders,” Gwozdecky said. “They needed to make up for the loss of Brock Trotter. They had to make up for the loss of Tyler Ruegsegger and step out of the role that they played to a more dynamic offensive role. Well, that just doesn’t work.”

What does work, fans were reminded again on Friday, is defense and goaltending, especially with one-time Frozen Four MVP Peter Mannino backstopping a run toward more trophies in his final month of college hockey. North Dakota had a huge crowd on its side, and threatened to take over the game early with a 5-on-3 power play in the opening minutes. But Mannino and the defense-first Pioneers shut them down, and never allowed the Sioux any momentum. That’s the hallmark of the new Denver style, and apparently, it’s working.

Goaltender Peter Mannino stuffs T.J. Oshie's shot during Denver's 3-1 win in Friday afternoon's WCHA semifinal.

“There’s no question that we’ve had to adjust our philosophy and our system of play a little bit since the middle of January,” Gwozdecky said. “We had two of our top scorers out of the lineup for a great deal of that last third of the season. Take the two top scorers out of anybody’s lineup. Take (T.J.) Oshie and (Ryan) Duncan out of North Dakota’s lineup or (Chad) Rau and (Jack) Hillen out of CC’s lineup and it changes things.”

So instead of looking for the Pioneers’ next offensive star, Gwozdecky made sure his team got back to playing to its strengths — namely, defense.

“Once we got our role guys playing the way they need to, without worrying about who’s going to score goals, you start to play a lot better,” said the coach. “The way we need to play because of who we are right now is we need to be a little bit more conservative. We’re not going to be a run-and-gun, quick transition team that we might have been in the first two-thirds of the season.”

After winning the Final Five, and the Frozen Four, in 2005, the Pioneers hadn’t been back to St. Paul. That fact, and the late-season swoon, had many concerned in Denver.

“Our second half was a little bumpy,” Gwozdecky admitted. “I will be very honest. I think there were some questions asked about our team in the last third of the season. The pressure and anxiety for our group was to try to make it to the Final Five. After that playoff series win on Saturday night, you could just see the invisible weight lifted off our shoulders.”

In sharp contrast to a month ago, Trotter’s absence today just means a new member of the 20-man roster has a chance to hoist the Broadmoor Trophy when the Pioneers play for the tournament title on Saturday night. And all 20 players seem to know their main role is to enjoy the turnaround that the start of the playoffs has brought to Denver.

“What I saw today was a team that’s having fun, was eager and excited,” Gwozdecky said.


Minnesota 2,
Colorado Coll. 1 (ot)
Team Goal Str
Time Assists
First Period
No scoring

Second Period

1-CC Andreas Vlassopoulos PP
0:39 J. Hillen, N. Prosser
1-MN Mike Hoeffel (8) EV
1:38 J. Barriball
Third Period
No scoring
2-MN Mike Hoeffel (9) EV
4:47 M. Carman, K. Wehrs
MN: Alex Kangas, 64:47, 37 saves, 1 GA
CC: Richard Bachman, 64:47, 33 saves, 2 GA
Penalties: MN 6/12; CC 5/10
Power Plays: MN 0-5; CC 1-5
Attendance: 16,967

As if Minnesota’s near-miraculous run to the tournament’s title game wasn’t a great enough story, Don Lucia began the Friday night press conference with some news that scores of Gopher fans had been praying for all week.

“The best news of the day is that Tom Pohl went home,” Lucia said shortly after Mike Hoeffel’s overtime goal put Minnesota in the tournament’s final. “I talked to him today and he sounded really good. He’s eating and keeping food down, and he doesn’t have quite the headaches he did before.”

Pohl was severely injured in the Gophers overtime win over Minnesota State last Sunday and had spent much of the week in a Rochester hospital after undergoing emergency surgery for bleeding on the brain.

“He’s certainly on the road to recovery, so that’s great to hear and we’re really happy for him,” Lucia said. “The doctors right now give him the thumbs up that if we were to make the NCAAs, and it looks like we are, he’d be able to accompany the team. That would be great for all of us, and especially for Tom.”


Since the day the Xcel Energy Center opened in 2000, there’s been talk of a Beanpot-style regional tournament featuring the WCHA’s four Minnesota-based teams. It was announced Friday that thanks to a scheduling fluke early next season, the first attempt at such an event will become a reality.

The preliminary league schedule for the 2008-09 season had Minnesota Duluth hosting St. Cloud State and Minnesota State hosting Minnesota on Nov. 1. The athletic directors from Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State came to St. Paul on Friday announce they’ve agreed to give up one home date each and move their respective games to the X for a doubleheader that night.

“A Beanpot-type thing has been talked about in Minnesota for many years,” said WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod. “It’s a great idea and it will be a wonderful event for college hockey. We can’t guarantee it beyond next year, but we’re hoping to make that work.”

One thing that has stood in the way of such an event for several years has been the University of Minnesota’s hesitation about giving up home dates at Mariucci Arena. The uncertainty about an all-Minnesota doubleheader at the X in future years stems from not knowing whether Minnesota and St. Cloud State will agree to giving up home dates in 2009-10 and beyond.

“I’m willing to look into it, and Don (Lucia) is too,” said Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi. “I’ll have to look at the numbers, but it’s a great concept.”

There are questions to be answered for Minnesota State and Minnesota Duluth too, where the game in St. Paul means moving a marquee date out of your home building, which may mean angering local fans, but it also means a big payday assuming all 18,000-plus of the arena’s seats are sold.

“There’s certainly the potential for us to increase our financial situation by having a game here,” said Minnesota Duluth athletic director and football coach Bob Neilson. “Each school has tens of thousands of alumni in the Twin Cities, so it’s a unique opportunity to showcase our program to our fans in this area.”

As for the event’s name, it was officially called the inaugural “State of Minnesota College Hockey Showcase” in materials handed out Friday, but somehow we think something a little more catchy may be coming.

“Thinking of the Beanpot and us being in the Midwest, my first suggestion was ‘the Hotdish,’” said McLeod.


• The crimson sweaters that Denver wears are somewhat similar, color-wise, to the maroon worn by Minnesota (more on that topic in a future INCH podcast). Perhaps that was the reason that hundreds of Gopher fans erupted in applause when the Pioneers took a 1-0 lead on North Dakota in the second period on Friday afternoon. We’re sure it has nothing to do with the 50 years or so that Minnesota and North Dakota have been archrivals, or that ocean of Sioux fans cheering for Holy Cross in the NCAA playoffs a few years ago.

INCH's Three Stars of the Night

3. Taylor Chorney, North Dakota
Amazing individual effort on North Dakota’s only goal, first holding the puck in at the blue line, then feeding Darcy Zajac’s shot on goal, then crashing the net and popping the puck past Peter Mannino as the goalie scrambled to cover.

2. Anthony Maiani, Denver left wing.
When Ryan Martens’ centering pass ended up on Maiani’s stick in front of the Denver net, the rookie from Michigan was off to the races. Maiani took the puck coast-to-coast, going wide in the offensive zone, then snapping a backhander into the upper corner of the net for his second game-winner of the playoffs.

1. Alex Kangas, Minnesota
Where this kid’s stamina and poise is coming from, we have no idea. But we were mighty impressed watching him turn aside all 20 shots he faced in the opening period Friday, leading his team to yet another unexpected overtime win.

• Minnesota State’s Joel Hanson, who was named the league’s top scholar-athlete, echoed the comments of many others about how far Mavericks coach Troy Jutting has come in the past year, from being rumored to be out the door at this time in 2007 to picking up the league’s coach of the year award Thursday.

“He did a great job this year,” Hanson said. “We were picked ninth and nobody really gave us a chance. He always had confidence in us and he picks us up when we’re down. He’s a great leader and an inspiration to our team.”

• Janet Testwuide, the mother of Denver’s J.P. and Colorado College’s Mike, was asked on Thursday what she does as far as rooting interest when the Pioneers play the Tigers. “I root for good games, and no injuries,” she said of the on-ice family feud.

• Pioneers radio voice Jay Stickney, a long-time friend of INCH, was a late scratch from Friday’s first game, when some wacky flight arrangements that had him flying from Denver to Minnesota via Las Vegas ended up with him stuck in Nevada and unable to get back east in time to make the contest. Fans in Colorado instead got to hear a feed from long-time Wisconsin radio man Jack Swanson, who is broadcasting the games over the Internet on

• The playoff beard has become a bit of a cliché in the hockey world, so the players at North Dakota decided to try something different this year. If a glance at the Fighting Sioux minus their helmets had you hankering to watch reruns of “Magnum P.I.,” it might have been due to the sweet playoff moustaches sported by the boys from Grand Forks. Of course, the ability to grow facial hair varies by player, which is why on the postgame press conference podium, T.J. Oshie looked virtually clean-shaven, while teammate Taylor Chorney could’ve doubled for Mark Spitz. “It’s coming in,” joked Oshie. “It’s getting thicker. Must be all the lights.”


There were two moments to salute prior to the start of the Friday evening game. First, Mark Ledbetter belted out a Broadway-worthy rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. Then the ceremonial first puck (technically, six of them) was dropped by the members of the gold medal-winning U.S. junior curling team from Minnesota.

Michigan Tech coach Jamie Russell gets a nod for brutal honesty, having to watch this year’s tournament from Section 120 after being behind the home bench for a Final Five game last season. “It sucks,” Russell said of being a non-participating coach. “It’s difficult coming here. You’re happy for the teams that got here. As a coach and as a program we have a heck of a lot of respect for North Dakota. But it’s not a lot of fun coming here and watching hockey. You want your team to be here.”

Leave it to the Michigan Tech pep band to come up with a new wrinkle we hadn’t heard before. The musical folks in the striped overalls who brought us renditions of “Barbie Girl” and the “Family Guy” theme at previous tournaments counted down the final seconds until the clock hit the 10-minute mark of the second period, then yelled, “HALFTIME!” and cheered.

We’ll acknowledge that the Final Five annually draws huge crowds, and we were impressed by the sea of green that came out to cheer North Dakota on a snowy weekday afternoon, but the number of attendance “records” announced by the tournament folks is getting ridiculous. It seems like every session in the building, no matter who’s playing, is hyped as some kind of new attendance standard. OK, enough. We get it.

Mother Nature is at it again. There’s a weather-related legend in Minnesota that there’s always a snowstorm during the state high school basketball tournament. Due to the Easter weekend, state high school officials moved the hoops tourney back a week this year, but the weather gods didn’t get the memo, and brought a huge winter storm down on St. Paul Thursday night and all day Friday. Ahh, springtime in the State of Hockey.

On a shorthanded rush late in the second period of the afternoon game, North Dakota’s T.J. Oshie, carrying the puck, was twice knocked down by solid, open-ice checks. That produced a rain of boos from the thousands of NoDak fans in attendance who wanted a penalty. Sorry folks, but checking a guy with the puck is legal. And contrary to what some believe, WCHA does not stand for Without Contact Hockey Association.

Speaking of contact, Friday evening referee Don Adam hit the ice hard in pregame warm-ups after a collision with the Goldy Gopher mascot. According to other league officials, such pre-game crashes are rare but not unheard of. Todd Anderson, who worked the Friday afternoon game, recalled a collision with North Dakota’s backup goalie before a game several years ago that left both men smarting.


Watching the Friday night semifinal presented Denver with a bit of a Hobson’s choice. Would you like to face the regular-season champs who beat you three times earlier in the season, or the tired Minnesota club that will have a huge crowd on its side? In the end it will be a rematch of the 2002 tournament final, and Gwozdecky will be looking to go three for his team’s last three appearances in the tournament.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a Minnesota team play with much heart, desire and will as that team is playing with right now,” Gwozdecky said. “With all the things they’ve gone through — the loss of players, the injuries. It’s inspiring to watch them play.

"So if there’s any way that we can get a bye, that’s perhaps what I would like to suggest or ask for,” he added, with a smirk.

In the afternoon, the teams that battled for first and second in the last two months of the regular season will play for third place in the tournament, with a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament on the line.