NORTHFORD, Conn. — On the night that Chris Cerrella moved into the top spot on the career scoring chart at Quinnipiac, the Braves’ senior assistant captain helped his team accomplish something that was just as, if not more important — keep his team’s season alive.
Despite squandering a 3-1 lead with under seven minutes to play in the game, Cerrella’s game-winner at 7:44 of overtime allowed Quinnipiac to advance to the MAAC semifinals with a 4-3 victory over Army. Of course, the goal proved to be sweet redemption, considering that the Braves’ alternate captain clanged two shots off of the post earlier in the game.
Quinnipiac will move on to play Iona on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. Eastern in the second semifinal matchup at the Uconn Ice Arena. The Braves won the season series against the Gaels 1-0-1, but those two contests were the opening pair of the 2000-01 campaign for both teams.
“The sad part about it is that I actually got a tear to my eye [in the locker room between the end of regulation and the start of overtime],” said Cerrella, who passed Todd Johnson and pushed his career total to 204 points with a goal and an assist. “I was looking around at the guys — Terry Harris, and the rest of the seniors — and I saw the same thing from them too. When I saw that, I had a great feeling.”
A goal from Dennis Palaia at 4:59 of the third period appeared to give the Braves the breathing room that they needed. Palaia’s snap shot from the right circle beat Army goaltender Scott Hamilton and increased the Quinnipiac advantage to two goals at 3-1.
Yet in a span of just under two minutes, the Braves self-destructed. Penalties to senior captain Shawn Mansoff and Ben Blais set the stage for a 5-on-3 power play for the Cadets.
Jon Fairman cut the Quinnipiac lead to one goal at the 14:09 mark when he flipped a rebound over a maze of players and past QU goalie Justin Eddy. Then, a mere 25 seconds later, Garrett Brougham capped the Army comeback with another rebound goal that knotted the game at 3.
Quinnipiac held the edge territorially in the extra session before it finally put the game away on Cerrella’s goal. With the MAAC Player of the Year candidate streaking in on a breakaway, Hamilton tried to poke check the puck away from Cerrella. Instead, the North Massapequa, N.Y., native sidestepped Hamilton’s attempt and slid the puck into an empty cage before absorbing the pile-on from his jubilant teammates.
“Our five seniors hung in there for us and did a great job this year,” Army coach Rob Riley said. “They really carried us, and I feel awful for them right now. When it seemed like this team was in deep trouble in mid-January, those guys rallied this team. That’s what’s disappointing, for these guys to go out like this.”
The Braves opened the scoring at the 12:38 mark of the opening period on a goal from junior Ryan Olson. Matt Erhart’s shot from the right point ricocheted off the end boards and right onto the stick of Olson, who lofted the puck under the crossbar for the game’s first goal.
Fairman was whistled for interference only 17 seconds later, allowing the Braves the opportunity to distance themselves in the early going. However, the Cadets hung tough during the penalty kill and managed to notch the tying goal while shorthanded. Nathan Mayfield capped off a two-on-one rush by knocking in the rebound of a K.C. Finnegan shot at 13:51.
Olson put the Braves back on top at 3:11 of the second period with his second marker of the game. Chad Poliquin (three assists) threaded a pass from behind the goal line to Olson, who was standing in the slot. The junior finished off the play with a quick shot that eluded Hamilton and gave Quinnipiac a 2-1 lead.
Quinnipiac had another chance to deliver the knockout punch to the Cadets later in the period. A roughing penalty to Mike McLean handed the Braves a power play, but a spearing call to Army defenseman Eric Joyce resulted in a major penalty and a 5-on-3 advantage for Quinnipiac. But Hamilton made nine of his 39 stops during the five-minute major, and Army was able to escape the middle frame only down a goal.
“We had all those penalties, and we had to kill off the major penalty and the 5-on-3,” Riley said. “There was just enough to give us a little bit of hope.”
Sure enough, Hamilton did all he could to keep the Cadets in the game. Despite allowing the goal to Palaia early in the third, he kept the Braves from getting their fourth goal in regulation with a handful of nice stops. And when Fairman and Brougham scored to tie the game, Army had put itself back in a position to win.
“When you get two goals in the last five minutes against a team like that [it's good],” Riley said. “I said all along that we wanted to make it a 20-minute game because in overtime, anything can happen.”
Nevertheless, Cerrella ensured his team a spot in the MAAC semis with his 21st goal of the season. The Braves have lost in that round in each of the previous two league tournaments, and Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold feels that there are still some things that his team needs to improve on if it wants to avoid a dubious three-peat.
“We still lack some maturity,” he said. “We can’t hold a lead because we take two dumb penalties, and our two key objectives — staying out of the box and not giving power breaks — we obviously didn’t do a good job of doing those.”
“I would think that this is a wake-up call,” Pecknold added. “Our two key objectives, we didn’t do, and we gave up three goals because we didn’t execute. Hopefully this will help us get better.”
Even in the winning cause, Cerrella acknowledged that his team needed a test from Army to make up for what it lacked in quarterfinal matchups in years past.
“The key to tonight was that Army is an aggressive team,” he said. “We won’t see another team like them in the MAAC. The last two years, the quarterfinal games were pushovers. Tonight we played a hockey game, and that we help us next weekend.”