If the #8 Denver Pioneers (12-5-1, 5-3-0 NCHC, 15 pts) ended 2021 on a high note with their 7-2 drubbing of the Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks (4-13-1, Ind.), they opened 2022 on a lower note, tying the visitors in the second game of the series at Magness Arena, 4-4. The Pioneers looked sloppy, disjointed, and out of rhythm for much of the game while the Nanooks looked energized and hungry for an upset and they very nearly got it.
A night ago, the Pioneers skated circles around the Nanooks as Cameron Wright netted a hat trick and Bobby Brink tallied four points. Tonight, Denver received another four-point performance, this time from senior Brett Stapley, but he didn’t receive the kind of support from teammates that led the Pioneers to victory on Friday night.
“That line was really good,” DU head coach David Carle said. “[Stapley] was possessing pucks, he was attacking. So was Devine. I thought [Ryan] Barrow was doing a lot of the dirty work for them. They were able to extend a lot of plays, get a lot of pucks to the net, and were good five on five and on the power play. For me, that was our best line tonight, not even close.”
Like last night, Denver controlled play for most of the game, outshooting Alaska 47-21 and out-attempting them 84-33 but the difference was a combination of the Pioneers’ relative inability to sustain possessions long enough to find the open shooting lane and Alaska goalie Gustavs Grigals’ incredible hot streak over the second half of the game, stopping everything the Pioneers sent at him, even the shots that found twine a night ago.
Denver did open the scoring less than two minutes in and held a lead for most of the game, but Alaska never went away. After the opening goal, the Nanooks answered six minutes later on their first power play for their only power-play goal of the night. Reid Irwin restored DU’s lead with 34 seconds left in the first period but even that lead was short-lived as Connor Mylymok scored the first of his two goals less than three minutes into the second period. Denver’s best chance to pull away came early in the second, though, when they had a 5-on-3 power play for 34 seconds but could only come away with one goal off of sophomore defenseman Mike Benning’s stick. Freshman forward Jack Devine did give the Pioneers their only two-goal lead with his second goal of the season, but that lasted for only 25 seconds as Mylymok scored his second on a highlight-reel breakaway goal to close the gap back to one.
The Nanooks were to the Pioneers tonight what that one fly that found its way into the house and won’t go away was to you this summer. They just kept hanging around and kept the Pioneers from pulling away like they did last night and, in the third period, with just over five minutes left, Anton Rubtsov found an opening and he took it, sending the puck through DU goaltender Magnus Chrona who wants that shot back.
“I think we had some lapses in our game where we didn’t stick to our process,” DU captain Cole Guttman said. “When you don’t play a full 60 minutes against any team, they can put a couple in on you when we’re not consistent like that.”
Rubtsov’s goal was the last one scored in the game, though Devine nearly netted his second of the night in overtime, though it was ruled the puck was played with a high stick after Grigals made a sprawling save to deny the initial shot. Denver never lacked opportunities tonight but at times, they lacked effort, especially in the key moments of the game and that’s what led to the tie.
Only NCHC play remains on the schedule at this point for the Pios and to put it frankly, a better hockey team than Alaska would have beaten DU handily tonight. Nearly every team in the NCHC is a better team than the Nanooks and the Pios can ill afford another performance like tonight’s. This time, it’s a tie and they maintain their position at #2 in the Pairwise. Next time, it could be a loss that causes them to tumble down the NCHC standings and out of the top half.
“I think it needs to be [a wakeup call],” Carle said. “Winning is hard. Playing the right way is hard and it definitely gets harder from here with our schedule.”
Pios take the early lead as Brett Staply tallies his 8th goal of the season!
1-0 less DU than 2 minutes in. pic.twitter.com/Sp6oFa935t
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) January 2, 2022
— The NCHC (@TheNCHC) January 2, 2022
Brett Stapley with his 3rd point of the night & Mike Benning scores his 8th goal of the season. pic.twitter.com/wHtnDQgs4I
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) January 2, 2022
Top photo courtesy of Denver Athletics