- Darrald Bennett
- Freshman forward Colin Stuart stepped up with an assist in Saturdays victory over DU.
For the 54th year, the Colorado College and University of Denver hockey teams met last weekend for the first two of four meetings this season that will determine which school will possess the prestigious Gold Pan trophy for the year to come.
It looks like CC will retain the trophy for a second straight year by virtue of their 4-1, and 5-1 wins at Magness Arena and the World Arena.
No one is quite sure what the determining factor is if Denver wins the meetings on Jan. 19 and Feb. 10. In the case of a 2-2 series split, are goals scored the determining factor? Or, like the Ryder Cup in golf, does the team that won it last season retain it?
"I really don't know," said CC coach Scott Owens after his team's 5-1 win at the World Arena Saturday.
In any case, no one in the Colorado College hockey camp, Owens especially, seems overly concerned that it'll come down to a tie-breaker situation. For good reason.
The Tigers turned in arguably their best back-to-back performances of the season against the Pioneers. The series represented a new kind of synergy among the CC hockey team that hadn't been there all season -- an assembling of all the elements that a hockey team must have to be a champion.
Both teams entered the contest on winning streaks. Denver was unbeaten (9-0-2) in its past 11 games. CC had gone 8-1-1 in its last 10 games. Both teams entered the series ranked nationally, CC at No. 4 and DU at No. 14.
The stage was set. Then, CC stole the show.
The Tigers answered the Pioneers' bone-crushing intimidation tactics by countering with their own brand of whoop-ass. CC is historically known for its speed on offense and finesse with the puck. The speed and skill is there again this year, but the Tigers' defense of 2000-2001 is bigger -- and better -- than it's been in many years.
"Teams think that they can throw us around physically," said defenseman Tom Preissing on the eve of the series, shaking his head. "I don't think that's the case."
Neither team scored in the first period of either game, but each was plenty physical; after which it became clear to all watching from the sold-out arenas that CC would not be intimidated.
Breathing room established, the Tigers burned the Pioneers with their superior speed, finesse passing and stick-handling.
Defensively, the Tigers thumped on and hamstrung DU's offensive thrusts, forcing the Pioneers to scrap up loose pucks around the net. The Pioneers didn't bury many of these chances with arguably the best goal tending tandem of Colin Zulianello and Jeff Sanger in goal. Alternating starts every other night, they are ranked first and fourth respectively in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in goals-against average.
If the well-rounded style of play represented a synergy, then it came about because for the first time in the season the Tigers have almost all their personnel up and playing.
Since before the season began the Tigers have been stung by injuries to one key player or another. It started with team captain and defenseman Paul Manning, who went down with a knee injury before the season and sat out seven games. Then, assistant captain Mark Cullen went down with a compression fracture to his C-7 vertebrae on Nov. 25 against Providence.
"I played the whole third period and overtime. I mean I was sore, but I didn't think it was anything terrible. A little different angle, the [doctor] said, and I could have been paralyzed."
It could have been devastating, but it wasn't. The Tigers' injuries could have led to a fall off in morale, and a let up on the ice. But it didn't. Others filled the void. While Cullen sat out the next 10 games, Preissing missed five games with a separated shoulder, and forward Jason Jozsa went down with a broken leg against North Dakota Dec. 8.
That's to say nothing of the myriad of bumps and bruises and welts that every player silently suffers throughout the season.
But the Tigers never missed a beat. Those who remained relatively healthy raised their level of play and produced plays when needed, whether it was a key goal or a penalty kill late in the game. The Tigers prevailed, going 6-1 from Nov. 26 up to the DU series. With a 10-4 record in the WCHA (15-4-1 overall) CC is tied for second in the conference with St. Cloud State and is a point behind North Dakota.
On the first night against DU, CC got goals from Justin Morrison, Alex Kim, Jesse Heerema and Joe Cullen. The next night the Tigers got goals from Chris Hartsburg, Morrison, Peter Sejna, Tyler Liebel and Brent Voorhees.
"Guys have been stepping up at the right time," Preissing said. "We've gotten some young guys that have been playing mature beyond their years. And that's something you really need to do when you have as many injuries as we've had this year. That might not have happened if injuries wouldn't have happened. I see it as nothing but a positive. It helps the younger guys get confidence, and the older guys get confidence in the younger guys."
Yet while the series against DU may have been a high-water mark for the 2000-2001 Tigers, it by no means seemed like the crest. Mark Cullen returned to the ice against DU and despite assisting on four goals in the series, and looking as sharp as ever, he felt better days still lay ahead.
"My hands and my shot were a little below average," Cullen said after the series. "Felt pretty good, but it wasn't my best."
Jozsa is expected to return by at the end of the month.
The relative health the Tigers enjoy now couldn't have come at a better time. For the rest of the season CC will be battling through the heart of the WCHA schedule to put itself in as good a position as possible for the WCHA tournament. Roadtrips coming up for the Tigers include games against Denver, No. 8 St. Cloud State (Feb. 2-3), and No. 9 Minnesota (Feb. 16-17). The month also includes a home series against No. 10 Wisconsin on Feb. 23-24.
"February is just a bear," Owens said.
It's possible though -- in fact probable -- that the Tigers will suffer one or more serious injuries during the remainder of the season, but the experience of the first half of the season has taught them that they can persevere through injury.
"Injuries are a part of any team sport, especially hockey," said Owens. "And the good teams are the teams that can pick up the pieces and put it together and we've certainly done that."
Upcoming home games at the World Arena
Fri.-Sat., Jan. 26-27, 7:35 p.m., vs. Alaska Anchorage
Sat., Feb. 10, 7:05 p.m., vs. Univ. of Denver
Fri.-Sat., Feb. 23-24, 7:35 p.m., vs. Univ. of Wisconsin