North Dakota-Denver Set For Showdown
by Virg Foss/Staff Writer
GRAND FORKS, N.D. When hat tricks come into a conversation, this isn't the kind that Denver coach George Gwozdecky had in mind.
In a WCHA weekend showdown at Ralph Engelstad Arena between teams holding positions No. 5 (Denver) and No. 6 (North Dakota) in the latest Pairwise, the Pioneers skate into Grand Forks down three players.
DU's leading scorer, junior forward Brock Trotter, left school last week and signed a three-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens as a free agent.
The Pioneers also will be without their fourth-leading scorer this weekend, sophomore forward Tyler Ruegsegger (10 goals, 10 assists, 24 games), sidelined for the second straight weekend with a stomach muscle injury.
Also out for the series is freshman defenseman Chris Nutini (flu), who has played in 24 of Denver's 28 games, contributing a goal and three assists.
Ruegsegger, an assistant captain, made the trip to Grand Forks, but not as an official part of the team.
"He's not part of our 22-man travel party," Gwozdecky said. "He asked me if it was OK if he paid his own way and came along, and we said sure. So he purchased a ticket on Tuesday and is paying for his hotel and meals and everything. It tells you a little bit about the commitment he has. He's a great young guy."
North Dakota will be a bit shorthanded this weekend as well. Head coach Dave Hakstol was suspended by the school for two games after making an obscene gesture toward officials during a series at Minnesota two weeks ago.
Associate head coach Cary Eades, assistant coach Dane Jackson and volunteer coach Scott Koberinski will divide the coaching duties in Hakstol's absence.
The North Dakota Fighting Sioux (17-8-2, 14-7-1 WCHA) and Denver (19-8-1, 13-6-1) sit in second and third place respectively in the WCHA, separated by two points. Denver has played two less league games, though.
North Dakota trails WCHA leader Colorado College by four points, but could tie the Tigers, idle this weekend, for first place with a sweep of Denver. All three teams remain very much in the hunt for the MacNaughton Cup, the prestigious trophy that goes to the regular-season champion.
Denver learned in a hurry it will get a cold reception in Grand Forks.
Gwozdecky said it was 69 degrees in Denver the other day; it was headed for a wind chill reading of minus 30 in Grand Forks when the two teams take the ice Friday night, almost a 100-degree change for the Pioneers.
"It was colder when we were here last year," Gwozdecky said. "I think the wind chill was 41 below. You'd take a cup of water outside and throw it into the air and it'd freeze before it hit the ground."
While it's cold in Grand Forks, it's home to a hot team. The Fighting Sioux are riding a nation's-best, nine-game unbeaten streak (8-0-1) to vault themselves from the second division of the WCHA into championship contention. The Sioux are in search of their fourth straight trip to the Frozen Four and first NCAA title since 2000.
Denver is just 3-4-1 since the calendar year 2008, but is coming off a sweep of Minnesota last weekend.
Now, however, Denver is dealing with the defection of Trotter and the injury to Ruegsegger, forcing Gwozdecky to juggle his lineup.
"We kind of helped ourselves by what we did in the first half of the season," Gwozdecky said. "We had a little bit of a rocky January. But after last weekend's series (with Minnesota), I thought we were able to get the team in the right direction."
Denver does have a great equalizer on its roster in senior goalie Peter Mannino, one of the nation's best. He carries a 2.15 goals-against average and .921 save percentage, along with four shutouts.
He also harbors a strong desire to help his team avoid a late-season slide like last year, when the Pioneers failed to make it to the NCAA tournament.
He was pulled from three games during December and January, but held Minnesota to two goals on the weekend last week.
Continued strong play by Mannino is a must if the Pioneers are to make it to the Frozen Four, being held in Denver this year.
The Pioneers are well poised to make it to the 16-team tournament this year, though.
"Last year we were somewhere in the same position and we dropped right out," Mannino said. "Didn't even make the national tournament. So you never know until that final game. At this point we don't know. We just want to keep going."
North Dakota and Denver met on Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Denver. The Pioneers won the opener 1-0 behind Mannino's 27-save shutout. The Sioux won the second game 3-1 behind two goals from last year's Hobey Baker Award winner Ryan Duncan and a 36-save game from senior goalie Jean-Philippe Lamoureux.
Lamoureux and Mannino could stage quite the show this weekend. Lamoureux leads the nation in goals-against average (1.73) and save percentage (.934) and has thrust himself into contention for this year's Hobey Baker. Mannino ranks in the top 17 nationally in both categories.
They are part of strong contingent of outstanding goalies throughout the WCHA, leading to an alarming drop of more than three goals a game in the league over the last 15 years.
"These are top teams here," Mannino said. "That's what they do, recruit top players."
Mannino's mini-struggle in goal seems to be a thing of the past. "That stretch is just a learning experience in my career," Mannino said.
He plays a position that by its very nature, carries with it a ton of pressure.
Is there even more pressure on Mannino with the Frozen Four coming to Denver's back yard in April?
"I'm definitely aware of the situation," Mannino said. "You'd love to be in the Frozen Four. Getting a taste of it my freshman year, that's something you always strive to be at. The last couple of years we learned it doesn't happen every year. You just prepare and play the best you can, and at the end of the day, you're happy."