No Mulligan for Denver This Time
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Last week, Denver played poorly in a pair of losses at the WCHA Final Five. But the Pioneers, a team built to win this season, that had won so many games all season long, knew there was more hockey to play.
This time, Denver is not so lucky. All of the promise, all of the hope, disappeared into the Albany evening as RIT scratched and clawed its way to a 2-1 win Friday in Albany.
Denver's season is done, the next victim in what's becoming a trend of Cinderellas in recent NCAA Tournaments.
"The day of having an imbalance in the 16-team field is long gone," Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. "RIT and every other team in this tournament deserves to be here. RIT played a terrific game. In these one-game shootouts, scoring the first goal is critical to give you an emotional jump, and they're the ones that got it."
The Pioneers clearly played a lot better than last week. Saying this was a hangover effect, or blaming it on the long flight, time zone shifts, or choppy ice, was not something Denver was much interested in doing.
"I thought our mental outlook was far different (versus) last weekend," Gwozdecky said.
But for whatever reason, Denver was not able to take advantage of its clear size and skill advantage, not able to generate consistent traffic in front of RIT's senior goalie Jared DeMichiel.
"You're getting your chances, and he just keeps stopping you," Denver senior captain Rhett Rakhshani said. "I'm sure there are things I could've done differently, but things happen so fast."
Said Gwozdecky, "I felt we didn't have enough time and space in the offensive zone and we took some ill-advised shots. But I thought we settled down after that first period. But there were times I felt we were a little too anxious, when the chance didn't develop, or when it was, we mis-timed it.
"I thought we'd be able to have more riding time, time to make plays in the offensive zone. And they took that away from us, especially early. As the game wore on, we were able to start doing that. I don't know if they got tired or we got more assertive. But I don't know if there's any one area that was different than what we (thought). ... DeMichiel was the goaltender of the year in their league, he was very aggressive. We thought we'd get pucks on him early, maybe bobble it, but he was very precise — pucks got there and stuck to him, or he handled them well."
There were bad omens early — a bad clear that led to RIT's first goal. Then, Chris Nutini, arguably the team's best defensive defenseman, who had been sidelined five weeks with a high ankle sprain, returned only to sprain his knee on his second shift.
"We had the team, and these one-game playoffs — you have to come out and start strong," said Denver sophomore Joe Colborne, a likely candidate to leave for the NHL soon. "We just have to give credit to them. Personally, I let some people down. I came here with one goal, to advance to Detroit, and we didn't get that done."
The pain was palpable on the face of Rakhshani, one of five senior forwards that played Friday. It was the third straight year Denver was bounced in the first round, and second straight year it was bounced by a No. 4 seed.
"It definitely stings a lot," Rakhshani said. "The hardest thing for me is, it's the end of the road for a great group of guys. ... They worked their butts off, their goalie played great."
The team was built to win with this great senior class that returned to win a title. It was complimented by some highly-talented underclassmen that will be in the NHL sooner than later, if not very soon — Colborne, Patrick Wiercioch, Matt Donovan, John Lee. Not to mention that Hobey finalist between the pipes, Marc Cheverie.
Next year's Pioneers will be very different.
"Especially with our senior class, Rhett and Tyler coming back, we really felt those two guys would be the catalyst to give us that experience and lift like BU's seniors did last year," Gwozdecky said. "It's rare you get those players back. It was rare for BU to get their guys back, and it was rare for us. But it happened, and certainly for the first six months of the season they led us to the top — they were terrific. But you get in this tournament, you're playing Game 7 every night, certain things happen.
"Unfortunately, we have to start from scratch again."