OSWEGO, N.Y. — Don’t tell Oswego that the ECAC Northeast doesn’t deserve an automatic bid into the NCAAs.
Wentworth skated, hit, and played even with Oswego all night Saturday before the Lakers finally prevailed, 4-3, on a last-minute score by Rob Smith off a goalmouth scramble.
The puck sat in front of the Wentworth net while goaltender Jamie Vanek couldn’t quite reach it. “A couple of sticks were swinging at it,” Vanek said. “I was able to find it, but by that time their guy got it before our guys could get it.”
“It came out from behind the net,” explained Smith. “I think it went off a skate. I just saw it there, and it trickled underneath his pads.”
Oswego held off Wentworth for the remaining 52 seconds, moving into the NCAA semifinals for only the second time in school history. The Lakers will play Middlebury in the semifinal round.
“Despite the fact that they weren’t ranked as high,” Smith said of Wentworth, “we knew they were going to come in ready.”
The game started the way most expected when the Lakers scored 51 seconds in. However, Wentworth wasn’t fazed, tying it 1:10 later, and the game became a tightly contested battle that wasn’t decided till late.
Both goals were weak shots that the goaltenders had problems handling, and both came immediately after the scoring team won a faceoff deep in the opposition’s zone.
The Oswego goal was scored by Mike Lukajic after Don Patrick won the faceoff. Lukajic skated with the puck across the slot area till he got open. Vanek got a piece of the wrist shot, but it still snuck between the five-hole.
Wentworth tied it when Brad Carpenter won the faceoff to Mike Prsa at the right point. Prsa placed a soft shot on net that fooled Gajda on his glove side.
Oswego retook the lead on a workmanlike goal by Brady Crooks. Crooks brought the puck into the zone down the right side, all the while fighting off defenders with stick handling and hard work. He finally found himself open with a difficult angle, but took the shot anyway. Despite the angle, Vanek didn’t have it properly cutoff, and the puck went between him and the near post. Rob Smith was credited with the assist.
Once again, it didn’t take long for Wentworth to tie it up; once again on another soft goal. Dave Zelasko scored from the point when Gajda didn’t handle the shot properly. Chris Hartly got the assist.
Wentworth was not afraid to take it right to Oswego.
Prsa explained Wentworth’s strategy: “To play a strong defensive zone, no running around and if you do that effectively, they play our style of game.”
That continued into the second period, but Gajda lifted the level of his game, making numerous big saves to keep the game tied. When Gajda wasn’t making saves, Wentworth missed an unguarded net twice when attempting to put the rebound in.
Those missed opportunities by Wentworth came back to haunt them as Oswego once again took the lead on another power-play goal. After not scoring on a long two-man advantage, the Lakers did find the net before the second penalty expired.
Andy Rozak fired a low slapshot from the middle of the blueline that John Hirliman tipped past Vanek. Mark Strzoda also got an assist.
After that goal, Oswego finally started winning the battles, but that was short lived when the Lakers took another penalty, which they killed off.
The third period opened up even more as both teams were using the open ice afforded by the other for a quick transition, speedy game. Again, the Leopards didn’t back down from the heavily favored Lakers.
“We played as hard as we probably could all game,” Wentworth coach Bill Bowes said. “The guys gave it everything they had.”
That tenacious play provided Wentworth with many opportunities to tie it up including a flurry with eight minutes left that Gajda was able to stop.
Shortly afterwards, however, Gajda committed a serious misjudgment — he decided to come way out of his net to play the puck that a defenseman probably had the angle on even of the Wentworth player picked it up first.
Gajda explains, “I thought I could beat him to the puck, but he had great speed, and he beat me to it.”
Wentworth also beat Gajda back to the net, and Jayden Der beat the defenseman turned goalie to tie the game at three apiece.
Two minutes later, Oswego took two penalties back-to-back — a too many men on the ice call and elbowing by Strzoda — that placed Wentworth in an excellent position to win the game. On top of that, Joe Carrabs took a ten minute misconduct.
The Leopards had some excellent chances to score, but Gajda made up for his earlier gaffe to keep the game tied.
One week after scoring a late goal to win the SUNYAC championship, Oswego scored a late goal to take the victory in the NCAA quarterfinal round.
“It gives us confidence that we can win a game late,” Roll said of the close contest. “In the past, we haven’t had that, but this team does.”
Oswego now stands at 24-6-1 awaiting their matchup with Middlebury.
Wentworth finished the season at 21-5-3. Three of those five losses were at the hands of Oswego.
However, Bowes was proud of what the ECAC Northeast has done. “If you look over the history of the last couple of years, we’ve [the ECAC Northeast] played with some of the powers.”
Oswego would agree with that.