Pioneers Survive Special Teams Woes to Complete Sweep of Sun Devils, 4-3

The #12 Denver Pioneers (2-0-0) have yet to give up an even-strength goal through two games. All six goals that they’ve given up in those games against the Arizona State Sun Devils (1-3-0) have come with the Pioneers’ penalty-killing unit on the ice. Fortunately for Denver, though, they’ve scored 12 goals – just two on their own power plays, though – in those two games and emerge from Homecoming Weekend at Magness Arena still unbeaten.

For a very young team like Denver, special teams take on an elevated level of importance and though they’ve dominated at even strength, scoring 10 goals while giving up none through two games, special teams can easily win or lose games. For the second consecutive night, the Pioneers’ special teams were outscored – last night it was 3-2, and tonight, it was 3-0. Of course, in game one, it didn’t matter thanks to the Pioneers’ eight-goal onslaught, but in game two tonight, special teams nearly swayed the game in favor of the Sun Devils.

“It certainly wasn’t perfect,” David Carle said after the game of his team’s performance. “But we’re really happy with our five-on-five play. I thought the power play generated a lot tonight…Certainly, the penalty kill is an area to clean up but it’s really hard to sweep in college hockey, especially against a quality team like Arizona State.”

Denver opened the scoring thanks to freshman Massimo Rizzo’s second goal of the game, but once ASU tied it up later in the period thanks to Jackson Niedermayer, the Pioneers couldn’t get the lead back until the third period. Denver native Matthew Kopperud gave ASU its first lead of the night with two minutes left in the first period, during Connor Caponi’s five-minute major for contact to the head, and Denver was left to chase the game from behind. Rizzo, with his second of the night, and Bobby Brink, though, kept the game from getting out of hand. Rizzo scored early in the second period to tie it back up at two while Brink responded to Josh Doan’s first career goal by scoring with 20 seconds left in the 2nd to tie it up at three.

“I think we expected a much better Arizona State team tonight,” Brink said. “I don’t think we played our best game and I think we had more to offer.”

It was Mike Benning who put on the hero’s cape, though, in the first half of the third period, hammering home the rebound off of Brett Stapley’s shot, which gave Denver the lead for good. Once again, it was an even-strength goal, the Pios’ apparent strength through two games, that lifted them to the victory.

Denver ended the night 0-for-7 on the power play and just 4-for-7 on the penalty kill, both numbers that they’ll need to improve on as the season progresses. Part of what drove those numbers, though, was inconsistent and questionable officiating. In the first period alone, there were 10 penalties called and less than 10 minutes of even-strength hockey played. While the numbers ended up fairly even – Denver had 8 penalties called to ASU’s 7 – it was the inconsistency of the officiating that left most fans and players scratching their heads. From ticky tacky calls, like a tripping call on Rizzo late in the third period when his stick was not near the Sun Devil’s skate to a missed knee-to-knee in the neutral zone and another missed contact to the head call, it was impossible to know what was and what wasn’t a penalty in this game.

“A big goal of ours was to try and stay out of the box with how lethal their power play is,” Carter Savoie said. “We didn’t really do a good job of that in the first there. I think we cleaned it up as the game went on but I think we need to stay out the box substantially more.

Now, as they say, “puck don’t lie” and Denver’s penalty-killing unit didn’t get the job done up to their standard, regardless of the officiating. And yet, the Pioneers still end the weekend with two victories and start the season on the right foot. Special teams have a lot of room for improvement but if Denver can continue to average six goals per game, they are going to win a lot of hockey games this year. They have a ton of skill and it was on full display all weekend long. If the Pioneers can clean up these fixable mistakes and areas for improvement, they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with all season.


Top photo credit: Shannon Valerio, Denver Athletics

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