Plattsburgh, the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Region, is set to square off at No. 2 East Seed RIT in a two-game, mini-game NCAA Quarterfinal Series.
These two teams met in the NCAA’s last year, when Plattsburgh defeated RIT 6-2 to win the 2001 NCAA Championship. However, both coaches are downplaying the ‘Rematch’ aspect of this series.
“It would be easy to say that, but I wouldn’t say it necessarily is a rematch,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson. “We have played them three times in the last three years, so I think there is more of a rivalry building as we get more familiar with them. When you meet the same team in the playoffs, a rivalry is slowing brewing here.”
Plattsburgh (20-8-2) has been carrying a heavy burden all season as it tries to defend its NCAA Championship.
“This year we’ve had a target on our back, we’ve been everyone’s big game obviously,” said Plattsburgh coach Bob Emery. “Team’s have overachieved against us all year long, and played great defense against us. We’ve been involved in a lot of low scoring games that we haven’t been able to win. If we had a problem this year, it has been scoring goals.”
The target on Plattsburgh’s back hasn’t been lost on its competition either.
“Plattsburgh is a very strong team again,” said Wilson. “They are always a program that is going to be in the top 10 in the country. They are the champions until someone knocks them off, and no one has been able to do that yet. I kind of look at [RIT] as the underdog here. It is hard to defend a championship, but they are not going to give that up easily. They have been tested by their own league on the way here, and are very well prepared for NCAA play.”
Both teams faced tough league schedules, both regular season and in the playoffs, to earn bids in to the NCAA’s. RIT (23-2) defeated Elmira 2-1 to earn the ECAC West Championship in a last second thriller.
“Our league did a great job of preparing us for what we’re going to face in the NCAA’s,” said Wilson. “Elmira and Manhattanville, from a pure talent standpoint, matched up very well against us. We had some very emotional games against those guys. There were a lot of one goal games which become a big, big factor as you are going down the road here in the playoffs, where you are going to be involved in a lot of tight games. All of the little things that a coach harps on all year long sometimes go to a deaf ear when you are winning big. But when you are in a tight game, I think you learn some lessons along the way.”
Plattsburgh’s road to the NCAA’s also took them through very difficult league playoffs. In the SUNYAC semifinals, Geneseo took Plattsburgh to a mini-game before bowing out. Then last weekend, Oswego played the Cardinals to two consecutive ties before Plattsburgh finally defeated Oswego 2-1 in the third game to earn the SUNYAC Championship.
“I think playing a tough schedule obviously helped us this past weekend, playing three games in three days,” said Emery. “I think after playing Oswego this past weekend, we are looking for teams that will try to play with us. I think that RIT is going to try to play physical and it is going to be a tough game and a tough series, but it is going to be a little more wide open.”
RIT’s strength this year has been a mix of strong leadership from its senior co-captains, Josh Faulkner (12-19-31) and Jerry Galway (13-34-47), combined with a group of maturing sophomore defensemen.
“Our team has improved,” said Wilson. “Our defensemen have stepped up this year, and a large part of that is that we have four sophomores playing defense. Tyler [Euverman] has improved in goal. We have gotten contributions from all of our lines this year.”
“Josh [Faulkner] and Jerry [Galway] are going to provide the leadership that is going to be needed in the series,” continued Wilson. “I wouldn’t be surprised if [Jason] Chafe, [Brian] Armes, and [Mike] Tucciarone are really the heroes in the series. There is a lot expected of the marquee players and sometimes it is just a little bit tougher for those guys. I expect them to play well, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is someone else who comes to the forefront.”
Balance and depth are the key words for the Plattsburgh team. Emery has four lines of forwards that are solid, and the depth of six defenders, to ensure that his team has the flexibility to react to the situation on the ice.
“We have prided ourselves for a long time on having four lines and six defensemen that go out and play,” said Emery. “We never have a leading scorer in the country. That’s not the kind of team we are. We are a balanced team, and feel that any line can go out there and make a contribution at any time.”
The statistics bear out Emery’s claim of balance. The Cardinals have scored 128 goals this year, but only have two players with more than 30 points; Jason Kilcan (10-30-40) and Guy Come (10-21-31).
Whether the coaches want to play the ‘Rematch’ card or not to motivate their teams, this is shaping up to be a dandy of a series. Two perennial NCAA powers are set to battle it out on the ice for the right to continue on to the NCAA Division III Frozen Four.
“We don’t know much about RIT since we haven’t played them this year,” concluded Emery. “We know they can be explosive on the powerplay, and we know they have the best player in college hockey with Jerry Galway. We are just going to play smart hockey, hard hockey, and play to win.”