ALBANY, N.Y. — If Clarkson had to pick one weekend this month to be at the Times Union Center, this certainly would have been it.
That said, however, the Golden Knights were conspicuous by their absence last weekend, when the ECAC Hockey championship was played in this building, and that absence stayed with the conference’s regular-season champions as they prepared for this weekend’s East Regional.
The Golden Knights arrived in Albany with the bitter taste of defeat lingering in their mouths, and they proceeded to emphatically spit it out on St. Cloud State, advancing to the regional final with a 2-1 win over the Huskies.
“In my eyes, if we didn’t win this game, the season was a disappointment,” goaltender David Leggio said. “We were motivated.
“We had to watch the ECAC championships in this arena last week, and we came to the arena every day ready to work. You can’t control whether you win or not, but you can control your effort, and it was definitely unbelievable tonight.”
To be sure, Leggio and the team in front of him delivered a winning effort, but to call the Golden Knights’ effort “unbelievable” may be stretching things a bit. After all, Roll believed all along that his team would show up ready to work just as hard as they did.
“To be honest, nothing surprised me,” Roll said. “These guys, I think one of their aspirations and their goals all year was to get to this point, to compete for a national championship. We’ve got a great group of seniors, and just a great group of guys.”
In all fairness, one might have expected the Golden Knights to come in rusty, given their light schedule in recent weeks. Friday’s tilt against the Huskies was only the fourth game in the month of March for Clarkson.
Following the regular-season finale against Quinnipiac on March 1, the Golden Knights had a bye week before the ECAC Hockey quarterfinals, then fell to Colgate in a three-game series. Such a sporadic schedule can take a toll on a team’s physical preparation, but the fifth-year head coach was not concerned about his team’s level of readiness.
“It’s funny,” Roll said, “but coming to the rink tonight, I really felt good about where we were at. We were hungry.”
Those feelings were justified, as Clarkson outshot the Huskies, 40-25, including a 14-5 advantage in the second period. In addition, the Knights held St. Cloud scoreless on the power play, and generally kept the Huskies from doing the things they wanted to do.
“You’ve got to give it to Clarkson,” St. Cloud head coach Bob Motzko said. “I thought they played a great game tactically, and they took the middle of the ice away. We just couldn’t get on track.”
St. Cloud’s difficulties were not reflected on the scoreboard, however, at least not at first. The Huskies held the Golden Knights scoreless in the first period, and took the game’s first lead at 4:08 of the second period on a Garrett Raboin wrist shot. Sophomore goaltender Jase Weslosky was outstanding, keeping the Huskies in contention throughout the contest.
“I should mention our goaltender was outstanding tonight,” Motzko said. “The big question mark for us coming into the season was the two-time All-American we lost [Bobby Goepfert]. It was an unbelievable performance by [Weslosky] tonight, and it sure is a bright spot in the future for us.”
In the end, though, Clarkson’s drive paid off. The Golden Knights tied the game at 14:15 of the second period when David Cayer crashed the net to convert on a Bryan Rufenach rebound, then took the lead 4:58 into the final frame when Shea Guthrie battled past a St. Cloud defender to put a backhand shot past Weslosky for the go-ahead goal.
“He’s a right-handed shot,” Weslosky said of Guthrie, “so I expected him to go to his backhand — which he did — but just before he shot, our defenseman got a stick on his stick, and I kind of thought he wasn’t going to be able got get a shot off. He got a really nice backhand shot off and went top shelf.”
From there, it was a matter of shutting down the Huskies, and the veteran Clarkson team stepped up and did the job. Of the 19 players who took the ice for the Golden Knights on Friday, 12 were juniors or seniors, and they were able to hold off a St. Cloud team defined by the youth of its top stars: sophomores Andreas Nodl and Ryan Lasch and freshman Garrett Roe, who were held to a total of six shots for the game (none for Lasch, a Hobey Baker finalist).
“Clarkson’s seniority really came out tonight,” Weslosky said. “You could tell that they wanted it bad.”
The Golden Knights will want a win just as badly on Saturday night, when they return to the Times-Union Center looking for their first trip to the Frozen Four since 1991.
“We know we’re going to be facing a really good team,” Guthrie said. “We can’t lose our focus, and we have to be ready to play.”
If Roll knows his team, the Golden Knights won’t disappoint on either count.
“I’ve been on teams where they got a second chance and they weren’t excited about it,” Roll said. “They weren’t motivated enough. This group, I can’t say that about. They were ready to go each and every day in practice. I just knew we were going to play well tonight. Whether we won or not, I obviously wasn’t sure, but I was really confident coming into this game that we were going to play the way we were capable [of playing].”
In the NCAA tournament, a win is never a sure thing. However, whether or not the Golden Knights’ play will be worthy of victory, one can be sure that their effort will be.