WEST SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — American International did something that no team had done to Holy Cross in eight games: it held it to one goal. But senior Jeff Dams’ strike with 21 seconds left in the first period was all Holy Cross needed to hold off the Yellow Jackets. With their 1-0 victory, the Crusaders moved within one point of clinching the Atlantic Hockey regular season title Tuesday night.
“I think we played a great first, a sloppy second, and a great third,” said Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl, whose team is 5-1-1 in its last six games. “We skated well and moved the puck well. We played 40 minutes with a one-goal lead. Overall, we did good a job.”
The recently explosive Crusaders offense seemed like it would bode well against an AIC team that had been outscored 18-2 in its last three games. Holy Cross continued that trend, testing Yellow Jackets goaltender Frank Novello 41 times, however, it could only come up with the lone goal.
“I think [our offense has] been pretty consistent all season,” said Pearl, whose Crusaders had netted 24 goals in the team’s previous six games. “All season, our forecheck forced turnovers and we get some chances. We’ve got some pretty good kids that can score. [Novello] played well for them. As a team, they did a great job clearing the front of the net.”
While Holy Cross’ offense was the story coming in, it would be the defense that cinched the win. A purple haze of jerseys enveloped the struggling AIC forwards in the neutral zone. Crusaders goaltender Ben Conway was tested just three times in the first period and 12 total for the game en route to his second shut out of the season.
“We did a great job getting back on defense tonight,” said Pearl. “They had one almost odd-man rush but Irving got back in time. We did a nice job picking up guys in the neutral zone. They changed their attack all night and gave us different looks. We were just able to adjust.”
Despite managing only 12 shots, AIC was not without its chances. The Yellow Jackets went 0-for-5 on the power play, including a five-on-three for 1:03 with time dwindling in the second. Holy Cross captain Greg Kealey was instrumental on the kill dropping to block three consecutive shots and a diving clear.
“Greg came here a solid player and he’ll leave one,” said Pearl. “He can do it offensively and defensively. When it comes to the penalty kill, he does everything we could ask him to.”
AIC nearly drew first blood when C.J. McConnell caught Conway out of the net and circled behind only to have his wraparound deflect wide.
Holy Cross’ Tim Coskren felt the agony of close calls as well. Coskren took a feed from Andrew Weber in the slot. Coskren beat Novello high to the glove side but his shot ricocheted off the pipe with two minutes to play in the first. Coskren could only skate to the bench shaking his head.
Dams recorded the game’s lone goal after freshman James Sixsmith hit him with a pass from behind the net. Dams shoveled the loose puck under Novello to give Holy Cross the only goal it would need.
AIC’s Andy Walbert got the best chance of the second for what appeared to be a rejuvenated Yellow Jackets. Walbert carved through the slot trying to take Conway left to right before firing a shot back towards the low right corner. Conway stretched and was able to get his right pad on it.
Early in the third, Guillaume Caron nearly got the equalizer when he rifled a pass from the left point to Jeremy Leroux camped out on the doorstep. Conway, however, slid to the backdoor and got his paddle down to deny Leroux point blank.
Holy Cross controlled the AIC zone in the final two minutes of the contest, preventing the Yellow Jackets from establishing a late push. When the horn sounded, the Crusaders sealed their season sweep of AIC.
AIC’s has only garnered one win in its last 13 games. Meanwhile, Holy Cross added to its lead on Mercyhurst, now at seven points, in the Atlantic Hockey standings. The two will clash in Worcester Friday night where Holy Cross is looking to sweep the season series.