Team of the Week: Denver
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Peter Mannino had an unusual remark for his landlord prior to this past weekend's games against Maine.
"We're gonna get you guys back this time."
See, Mannino's Denver-area landlord happens to be George Bishop, who happens to be the uncle of Maine goalie Ben Bishop, who beat Denver in two games two seasons ago.
"I left him tickets and told him he had to root for Denver," Mannino said. "He said he wanted Denver to win both games 1-0. That almost happened."
The last two Octobers combined, Denver has gone 7-7. That included a two-game sweep at the hands of Maine to open the 2005-06 campaign, when the Pioneers were coming off back-to-back national championships.
And while, each time, the Pioneers recovered to have strong seasons, it was those early-season losses in non-league games that ultimately kept Denver out of the NCAA tournament, by agonizingly-slim margins each time.
So for that, and many other reasons, the opening-weekend two-game home sweep of Maine was a big lift for the Pioneers, who despite having a team with 12 (albeit-talented) freshmen, played a strong series and showed hints of what could be in store.
"We've been so close the last couple years," Mannino said. "Hopefully we complete this season in a consistent manner. ... The main this is the bonding and make, as coach likes to say, 'becoming a team.' And that step has really come quickly.
"Each year, we were one game away (from the NCAAs). So the guys know the urgency of every game and the young guys are feeding off that."
That youth is particularly exposed on defense, you would figure. Though only one freshman figured into the rotation — Chris Nutini — there was also former forward Patrick Mullen, now playing on the backline.
But Denver only allowed one goal on 55 shots on the weekend, thanks in no small measure to Mannino, the last line of defense.
"Patrick is a very athletic person," Mannino said. "He's multi-talented when it comes to sports. He sees so many great things. To make that move to defense, he shows how versatile he really is."
Coach George Gwozdecky concurred, and said that Mullen will be there indefinitely. That could mean all season, or until the team gets more depth back on defense. But he said that Mullen greeted the challenge enthusiastically, despite his heritage, coming from a high-scoring family (his father Joe scored 500 NHL goals).
"He's never been a huge scorer," Gwozdecky said of Mullen. "He's been the playmaker."
Mannino is a senior who already has a national title under his belt, when after rotating all season with Glenn Fisher, Mannino got the starts at the Frozen Four in winning the 2005 title.
But after two slightly more inconsistent seasons in the rotation with Fisher, Mannino has assumed the mantle as No. 1 goalie outright — something the Pioneers haven't had since Adam Berkhoel in 2003-04.
Gwozdecky said Mannino has worked hard and has been waiting for this challenge.
"It's just part of the position," Mannino said. "You like to take that load and put it on your back. It's been an interesting transition the last three years. This will top it off. It's more responsibility. Like moving away from home the first time.
"I took my conditioning pretty serious (in the offseason). I skated a lot more than I usually do. I like to get away to play roller, but I backed away from that."
Meanwhile, the freshmen made their mark up front, with Kyle Ostrow, Jesse Martin and Anthony Maiani scoring three of the Pioneers' five goals. Tyler Bozak centered a line was a key faceoff man while preserving leads.
"To see the freshmen getting acclimated to college hockey, our lines, power play, systems that we prep in the preseason, all kind of put together slowly," Mannino said. "It's exciting to see them finding their way."
This weekend, the Pioneers will get another challenge. Actually, the "weekend" starts Thursday, when Denver starts a two-game set at Notre Dame. The series was moved up to accommodate the Notre Dame-USC football game on Saturday, which Denver was invited to and will stick around for.
Notre Dame may not be very good in football this year, but Gwozdecky said the atmosphere will nevertheless be exciting for his team.
"How many times do you get to see a big-time college football game like that?" Gwozdecky said.
Mannino said he also looks forward to seeing Mark Van Guilder, Christian Hansen, Luke Lucyk and Brian D'Arcy, all of whom he played with for Tri-City of the USHL.
"I keep in touch with Mark the most," Mannino said. "When I heard he got named captain, I sent him a text message to congratulate him."
It will be another weekend of growth, one would assume.
"There's plenty of things I saw that we need to work on," Gwozdecky said. "But it's always easier to coach off wins."