Denver-Maine Meet Again
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
(This article originally appeared at CSTV/College Sports.com.)
The last time these two teams met — to decide the 2004 national championship — little did they know they would become poster children for a new rules initiative that would see to crackdown on obstruction.
That game — a 58-minute tractor pull followed by the two of the most exciting minutes in NCAA tournament history — ended in a 1-0 win for Denver. It also served as a lesson for how slow and methodical college hockey had become, and was an impetus for change.
Of course, it also happened to conclude with an incredible final two minutes, where Denver went shorthanded, and then took another penalty, as Maine pulled the goalie to create a frantic 6-on-3. The puck didn't leave the Denver zone until the final few seconds, but the Pioneers held on.
Two seasons later, this game will provide not only a chance at "revenge" for Maine, but provide a nice context in which to view how things have changed in college hockey since that time.
In the interim, Denver won another national championship under the new rules initiative, proving — as if there was any doubt — that plenty of skill existed on their roster, too. Meanwhile, Maine has spent the better part of two years trying to figure out how to score some power-play goals, recruiting skilled offensive-minded defensemen in the process. It paid off last weekend, in a split against xxxxx and Colorado College, when Maine scored nothing but power-play goals.
In particular, last season, Bret Tyler joined the defense and made an immediate impact offensively. This year, three more skilled freshmen have joined the mix — Simon Danis-Pepin, Matt Duffy and Brian Plaszcz. Plaszcz didn't play last weekend, the other three each had an assist.
"It's been a couple years in the making that we're trying to add more offense, and we're just fortunate that we've found these guys," said Maine coach Tim Whitehead.
"Last year, PP guys were all freshmen and sophomores pretty much. Billy Ryan, Keenan Hopson, Bret Tyler. ... We tried a lot of different guys on the weekend, and each game we're narrowing it down a little more."
The offense is an amalgam of fairly talented and hard-working players, all coming together in a "whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts" kind of way. But Whitehead would like to see their innate talent shine through more, too. Players like Derek Damon, Billy Ryan, Mike Hamilton, Rob Bellamy, Keith Johnson and Josh Soares.
"Greg Moore is actually the fastest player on our team (despite his size)," Whitehead said of the senior. "He's also really worked hard on our shot. Went to New York's rookie camp in the summer. They were so excited about him, they actually offered him to come out. But he knew he was going to be captain here, and he decided to come back to Maine."
Speaking of developing his shot, Michel Leveille is another important cog. Known in the past for passing too much and giving up scoring opportunities, he developed well last season before getting hurt.
"He'll always be a passer first because he's got those instincts, but he's really developed that shot and is now shooting more often," said Whitehead. "He's becoming more of a threat."
"(When Denver won in '04) they did a great job getting in shot lanes. I really think that's because of the equipment. Everyone's courageous. ... As a result, the key thing is you have to get the shot off quickly. You can't overpass because you won't have that shooting lane open very long."
Denver will playing its first "real" games, and still has some kinks to work out. But no one will be sympathizing too much with the two-time defending champs, which return an enormously-talented roster, led by Hobey hopeful Gabe Gauthier, now a senior.
"I think we've been very fortunate over the last couple years, to be able to share the scoring around a number of individuals, not just one or two. That's very healthy. Obviously that makes us a more difficult and challenging team to play against, because matchups are so difficult. I think we continue that theme from last year. Obvously Gauthier - Stastny, Corbin, Veideman - our plan is to create offense as a group. I think that's very healthy and it makes it a very difficult challenge to play against."
Which isn't to say that some real talent wasn't lost. Luke Fulgham, Jeff Drummond, Jon Foster and Kevin Ulanski are the forwards that graduated (that's 71 goals). Nick Larson, Matt Laatsch and Jussi Halme are the graduated defensemen. And Brett Skinner left a year early for the NHL. The talent of the incoming freshmen is probably beyond the class that left, but they will miss their character.
"That was kind of a unique class," said Gwozdecky. "When you look back at that group, they were not very highly recruited. They were not in great demand. Of that group, the most highly recruited was probably Jon Foster. But our three senior captains were all recruited walk ons. Not a single guy was highly recruited."
Last year's freshmen group was also extremely talented, and once it got rolling, it led Denver straight to another title. After a 5-5 start, the freshmen all integrated quickly, and Denver steamrolled the nation from there. The same won't be necessary this year, but a lot does again depend on how quickly the freshmen can integrate — a class that includes Pat Mullen and Brock Trotter up front, and T.J. Fast leading a group of four new defensemen.
"Our freshmen know they're going to play, and they're going to play a lot," said Gwozdecky. "Some guys make the transition quicker than others. Last year I thought the transition was made very quickly and very efficiently."
Expect to see Glenn Fisher and Peter Mannino split time in goal this weekend. The pair split all of last season, until Mannino got both starts at the Frozen Four, leading to speculation that he has become "the man." But Fisher came back bulked up and in great shape.
"As much as a question mark it was a year ago at this time, it's probably a strength as we approach this season," said Gwozdecky.
The opposite is true for Maine, which lost Jimmy Howard to the NHL a year early. That leaves it in the hands of sophomore Matt Lundin and freshman Ben Bishop. But if last week was any indication, they are more than capable of leading Maine far.
These early-season games are important, but as Denver proved last year, you need to keep your eye on the big picture too.
"It's a process, and it's important to be playing in October, for the games in October, and not be playing for the games in April," said Gwozdecky. "All they've talked about since we got back from Columbus — the media — has been the future. Our team is experienced enough to know, let's not put the cart before the horse. They are excited to be getting prepared to play Maine."