Mount Royal goalie Colin Cooper stood up to 10 sticks, and the will of 1,272 Soldotna Regional Sports Complex fans, in preserving a 1-0 exhibition victory over the University of Alaska Anchorage on Friday night.
With the Cougars clinging to the one-goal lead with 2 minutes, 13 seconds, left in the game, the line of Soldotna High School and Kenai River Brown Bears product Brad Duwe, who has been skating the sports complex ice since 3 years old, pressed hard for the equalizer.
A scrum in front of the Mount Royal net ensued with seemingly every player on the ice, save UAA goalie Jared D’Amico, stabbing maniacally at the puck with the crowd at full throat.
But Cooper withstood that push, and recovered to save a Tanner Dusyk backhand a minute later that appeared headed for an open net, to preserve the win.
“When you get 10 sticks pushing on a puck, it’s hard to keep it out,” said Duwe, a junior who had 10 points as a sophomore and eight as a freshman. “But the goalie stood on his head. He did it.”
While Seawolves coach Matt Thomas didn’t get the win for which he was looking, he did accomplish something else important.
“I’m trying to get the program to reconnect with fans,” said Thomas, in his third year at the helm. “I know a lot of people from the Peninsula come to Anchorage and watch the games.
“It was a good experience. I’d like to do one in the Valley as well.”
Mount Royal came to the Peninsula from Calgary, Alberta. The Cougars, who play in Canada West, went 20-13-1 in coach Bert Gilling’s first year in charge.
Gilling said he is trying to bring an NCAA Division I mentality to his team. The roster is stocked with former Major Junior players, who aren’t eligible to play NCAA.
Friday was the first time Gilling’s squad faced an NCAA Division I team, and the coach said the victory shows the program is headed in the right direction.
“It was awesome,” said Gilling, whose club also has a Sunday exhibition at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “There was a great crowd, a great environment in the building.
“We feel very fortunate to get a chance to play here and we appreciate all the fans that came out.”
While this was Mount Royal’s fourth exhibition game, the Seawolves had the season’s first practice with Thomas last Saturday.
In his first season, Thomas led the Seawolves to an 18-16-4 mark — the first winning season at UAA since 1992-93 — and the program’s third appearance in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five. Last season, UAA was 8-22-4 and finished last in the WCHA.
With 12 new faces on the team, UAA got off to a slow start Friday, getting outshot in the first period 6-4 and giving up at least three great chances in front of goalie Olivier Mantha.
But Mantha, voted MVP by his team last year, picked up right where he left off by posting a shutout before leaving with 6:21 left in the second period.
“I thought our goaltending was good tonight, and that’s definitely a good sign,” Thomas said.
The Seawolves’ best stretch, before the frantic finish, came in the first 10 minutes of the second period.
“That’s a credit to UAA,” Gilling said. “They had more jump and energy at the start of the second period. They probably didn’t like the way they played in the first period.”
But the Cougars withstood the push, which was capped by an unsuccessful UAA power play that started at the 11:21 mark.
The third period turned into the type of back-and-forth action where the feel is one play will win the game.
With 7:27 left, Matthew Brown made that play when he beat a UAA defender off the wall and found Tyler Fiddler out front for the game-winner.
“That was a couple of our elite players,” said Gilling, whose team took the shot count 17-13. “That’s what you hope they’re able to do in a tough game like this.”
Thomas said his team was solid defensively, but may have been too concerned about defense, to the point of affecting the offense.
“We worked,” Thomas said. “We just didn’t work consistently enough in the areas it takes to score goals.”
Duwe was one of just three upperclassmen forwards on the ice, and Thomas said the line of Duwe, Dusyk and 6-foot-2, 209-pound freshman Mason Mitchell was the only line he kept together all night. Duwe said he loved playing with the big, physical Mitchell and Dusyk, a junior who returned after missing last season due to a medical issue.
“We knew what our weakness was coming in, and that’s scoring,” Thomas said. “We’ll score by committee and a certain identity. I don’t think we captured that identity tonight.”
Thomas said he needs Duwe to step up this season, and Duwe said he is ready to take on that responsibility.
But first, he had to get over that he was playing for UAA on the same ice on which he had skated his whole life.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking at first,” Duwe said. “But once I got out there, I remembered all the old times on the ice with all the fans and all the parents supporting me.”
The forward added he always looks forward to the support of Kenai Peninsula Ice Hawks teams when they come to Anchorage.
The Seawolves have two other former Brown Bears on the roster in freshman Alex Jackstadt of Anchorage and freshman Evan Hauser of St. Paul, Minnesota. Thomas said both have been good, but neither suited up Friday.
Cougars 1, Seawolves 0
Mt. Royal 0 0 1 —1
UAA 0 0 0 —0
First period — none. Penalties — Mt. Royal 1 for 2:00; UAA 1 for 2:00.
Second period — none. Penalties — Mt. Royal 1 for 2:00; UAA 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 1. Mt. Royal, Fiddler (Brown), 12:33. Penalties — Mt. Royal 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Mt. Royal 6-5-6—17; UAA 4-6-3—13.
Goalies — Mt. Royal, Lanigan (10 shots, 10 saves), Cooper (3 shots, 3 saves); UAA, Mantha (10 shots, 10 saves), D’Amico (6 shots, 5 saves).
Power plays — Mt. Royal 0 for 2; UAA 0 for 3.