POTSDAM, N.Y. — The battle for the North Country began on Friday night at Clarkson’s Cheel Arena. What heroics could Golden Knight and St. Lawrence Skating Saint fans look forward to this time around? Would the game erupt into a high-scoring shootout reminiscent of this year’s two regular-season meetings of the teams, or would Clarkson and SLU rekindle their rivalry through the rough housing that has characterized it for the past several decades?
As it turned out, the first game of this Clarkson-St. Lawrence playoff series was very different, neither a scoring eruption, nor a slugfest. Both teams played acceptable hockey, but neither was spectacular. However, when the final buzzer sounded at the close of the third period, the Knights found themselves on top, 3-1. Their solid effort can be attributed to good play in all aspects of the game, but their victory was due largely to the outstanding efforts of two players — defender Randy Jones, and goaltender Mike Walsh.
At 8:43 into the first period, Saint Ray Dilauro was whistled for the first penalty of the contest as he hooked a Clarkson forward to the ice along the boards. There was no stopping Clarkson on the ensuing power play, as it took Knight defender and Hobey Baker hopeful Kerry Ellis-Toddington merely a few seconds to skate the puck into SLU’s zone. From just inside the blue line, the Knights’ co-captain rifled a brilliant cross-ice pass to Jones, who had sneaked down toward net from his usual post on the blue line. When Jones received the pass, he found himself totally unmarked in the high slot.
Jones skated toward the goal, faked toward the far post, but dragged the puck back to the near side — and his forehand — just as St. Lawrence goalie Mike McKenna dropped to the ice. Jones easily walked around McKenna, and had no difficulty depositing his first career playoff marker into the back of the net.
That first Knight goal was the last for quite a while, as neither team managed to find the net again until well into the third. Both teams, however, had ample opportunities throughout the rest of the first and then the second period. Indeed, at the end of the second stanza, the Green and Gold had put a total of 15 shots on net, while St. Lawrence had accumulated
27. Clarkson’s Walsh stood on his head, especially during the second period, to keep his team in the game and to preserve their lead.
Walsh was especially sound during his team’s first few penalty kills, during which he displayed the form that earned him the first star of the game on this night, and all-ECAC honors last season.
“Mike Walsh was spectacular,” said very pleased Clarkson head coack Mark Morris. “So was our penalty-killing unit. He [Walsh] had his playoff face on tonight, and that’s the type of goaltending you have to have to excel at this time. He had some great saves.”
“Mike did a good job. He really challenged our shooters out there,” agreed coach Joe Marsh of SLU.
The scoreless second and early third periods saw the power-play and penalty-kill units of both teams tested several times. While the game was ripe with emotion, and many obvious penalties were called, there were more than a few “no-calls” that earned the game’s officiating staff an earfull from the Clarkson bench and from the stands. But, in the end Clarkson didn’t have much to complain about, as the Knights managed two more specialty-teams goals in
the third period to wrap up the win.
The first was scored by senior co-captain Matt Poapst, as he beat McKenna high on a partial break-away. Later, during a four-on-four situation following matching minors, freshman
sensation Jay Latulippe put the Knights up 3-0 after being sprung on a long break-out pass.
Jones assisted on each of those final two Knight goals, which, combined with rock-solid, defensive-zone coverage throughout the contest, helped him to earn the second star of the game.
“It’s like he’s got a string on the end of his stick connected to the puck sometimes,” said Morris of Jones. “He’s got exceptional hands and patience galore. His skating stride is not textbook, but he does have the ability to make the right play at the right time. With some work on his skating, he could really take his game to the next level.”
To give St. Lawrence credit, the Saints didn’t give up after falling behind, 3-0. The Saints even managed a goal of their own late in the third period on a pretty power-play set-up, as Rich Peverley eradicated Walsh’s clean slate with a well-placed shot from the high slot. The goal allowed SLU to pull goaltender McKenna in the final few minutes of the contest for one
last-ditch effort to knot the score. But, in the end good defense by the Knights prevailed.
“The power play has been the difference,” said Marsh in summary of the evening. “They had some golden opportunities on the power play, and they finished them off. Some of the power plays we did have we got good chances off on, but we just didn’t score. We’ve just got to keep plugging; they [goals] haven’t been coming this year.”
The Knights and Saints will face off again on Saturday night in the second game of this best two-of-three game series. When asked about his team’s chances of coming back from its current one-game deficit win the series, Marsh was less than optimistic. Instead, he chose to focus on what his team will need to do in order to be competitive over the balance of the series.
“We haven’t won two games in here since I’ve been a head coach, and I’ve been here for 17 years. That’s a pretty long climb; that’s Mt. Everest without oxygen. But if we can get a period under our belt, win a period…kind of a smart small… that’s what’s important.”