Denver grabbed four points at Alaska Anchorage last weekend, then the Pioneers got changed and high-tailed it for the airport, catching the red-eye flight to Colorado, via Seattle. The sun was up and it was mid-morning in Denver by the time they touched down, but as Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky surveyed his team as they got off the plane, he didn’t see a tired and weary bunch. He saw smiles.
It’s a far cry from where this team was a month ago, when injuries and inconsistency had taken the popular pick to win the WCHA title and left the team scratching and clawing to stay above .500. Now, since that head-scratching loss to Alabama-Huntsville in their first outing of 2012, the Pioneers have won five in a row and find themselves just two points back of second-place Minnesota Duluth heading into a home-and-home series with archrival Colorado College.
“We’ve put ourselves in position with 10 games remaining in the season to see if we can track down Duluth and stay ahead of some of the competition that’s right on our heels,” said Gwozdecky in his weekly news conference.
The turnaround has been fueled by a combination of positives that were nowhere to be found in the first half. The team is getting healthier just as key rookies are stepping up their games, and an overall emphasis on team defense is allowing the goal scorers to do more.
“There was a general feeling that we’d be able to outscore anybody,” Gwozdecky said of the team’s mentality in October and November. “If the other team got five, we’d get seven. If they got four, we’d get six. But a real positive adjustment has been made in the way we’re playing team defense.”
And a key element in that defensive picture was the return of goalie Sam Brittain, who hadn’t played since last season after undergoing surgery. Brittain got the call on Saturday night in Anchorage and stopped 24 shots in a 6-3 win. Still, the coach expected rust, and got it, from the goalie.
“It was not going to be a shock to any of us if he started off rusty, and I think he did,” Gwozdecky said. “He was not the Sam Brittain that any of us knew from last year.”
But in the second period, when a 5-0 Pioneers lead was quickly cut to 5-3, the Pioneers saw flashes between the pipes of the kid who won 19 games as a rookie a year ago. “As has always been the case with Sam, when he’s challenged he buckles down and closes the door.”
The door may be tougher to close this weekend, with Colorado College right behind the Pioneers in the standings. And on Thursday the Pioneers lost a key cog in their offense when Gwozdecky suspended rookie forward Ty Loney indefinitely for a violation of team rules. Loney, the son of Stanley Cup-winner Troy Loney, has 16 points in his first 20 college games and had posted a dozen points in the Pioneers last seven games since being promoted to the team’s top line.
That may be a blow for a Denver team on the rise, but with a visit from the Front Range rivals looming on Friday and a trip to Colorado Springs set for Saturday, there’s little need for extra inspiration.
“It’s CC week,” Gwozdecky said. “You can certainly sense that in the building, and at practice and in our locker room. It’s always a special atmosphere. This series is as big as they get at this time of year.”
NEED BUCKS? GET A BIG PUCK
For years they’ve tried all of the conventional channels to get funds for improvements to the rink in Mankato. Opened in 1995, the Verizon Wireless Civic Center has been the home of Minnesota State hockey as the program transitioned from Divison II to Division I independent to the WCHA, but school and community officials say the time for upgrades is long overdue.
Officials in the state legislature twice approved the needed funds, only to have then-Governor Tim Pawlenty veto the money both times. Now, they’re taking an interesting new approach to raise awareness of the financial needs for the home of the Mavs.
This week the school unveiled an initiative called Greater Mankato Carries the Puck. Starting before Friday’s home game with Michigan Tech, MSU will have a replica puck nearly five feet in diameter that supporters can sign to show they support state dollars to improve the rink. They’re hoping to gather 1,000 signatures and bring the puck to the State Capitol in a few weeks to present to Governor Mark Dayton (a former Yale goalie).
“We are really excited about our opportunity to help rally support for this project,” said Minnesota State athletic director said Kevin Buisman, in a statement released by the school. “These planned improvements would have a dramatic impact on our program by creating a new modern home for our men’s and women’s teams that will be attractive to both current and prospective student-athletes.”
The school is seeking $31 million from the state for the project.