PROVIDENCE, R.I. — It’s not often that the consolation game of any tournament, let alone a holiday tourney, would elicit a celebration worthy of singing and dancing. Not, of course, unless you’re Holy Cross.
The Crusaders, who entered Sunday at the Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee Pot as a heavy underdog against ECACHL-leading Union, let choruses of “O-Lay, O-Lay, O-Lay, O-Lay” belt from their locker from after upsetting the Dutchmen, 3-1, to earn third place in the second annual tourney.
The win came in a game in which Holy Cross outworked, outskated, and eventually outscored the Dutchmen over three periods to earn the school’s second victory over a “Big Four” opponent since becoming a full-fledged Division I team in 1998-99. Coincidentally, the school’s only other Big Four win came against Union, 4-1, in November 2002.
“It’s a great win for those kids in the [locker] room,” said coach Paul Pearl. “They battled pretty well tonight. It was a good job.”
It was maybe a little more than just a “good” job for Holy Cross, which played in Saturday’s second semifinal and had to return on short rest to face Union, though the Dutchmen admittedly had a tough, physical game against Merrimack in its own semifinal.
It was ironic that such a big win for the ‘Cross program would be sparked by the power play, which hadn’t scored a goal with the man advantage in four-plus games.
The power-play tally, which came with just 2:55 remaining in regulation after Union had tied the game eight minutes earlier, came from the stick of captain Andrew McKay. The puck got through a scrum in front and found McKay alone in the slot. He fired a high shot that Union goalie Justin Mrazek got a piece of but allowed to trickle past him as he fell backwards.
“You know that Andrew is going to get a goal for you,” said Pearl. “For it to come with three minutes left, that was nice.”
In addition to McKay, much of the credit for the win has to go to goaltender Ben Conway. Regarded by the Holy Cross staff as an alternate number-one goaltender along with Saturday night’s starter, Tony Quesada, Conway proved he’s every ounce a top-notch goaltender, making 32 saves, many of the show-stopping variety.
“He’s a good goalie,” said Pearl of Conway. “We expect him and Tony to play well for us all the time.”
As much as a celebratory night as it was for the Crusaders, it was equally frustrating for Union and head coach Nate Lehman.
“We didn’t battle, we didn’t compete, we were lifeless and [Holy Cross] outworked us,” said Lehman, whose club entered the tournament on a six-game winning streak before a tie and a loss this weekend. “I’m embarrassed for Union College for that performance. We’ve had out success this year through our hard work and for us to take a weekend off, there’s no excuse.”
If there was any sign that this was going to be Holy Cross’ night, it came early. Just 3:36 into the game, McKay fired an innocent-looking shot on Mrazek. But when Mrazek couldn’t control the rebound, it landed on the stick of Sean Nappo, who roofed a shot underneath the crossbar for a 1-0 Holy Cross lead.
The game stayed that way through the remainder of the first and all of the second, thanks to the play of each goaltender.
For Union, its best chances came late in the second. Jason Visser was stopped at the right post on the power play with five minutes remaining. And less than two minutes later, Casey Ftorek had Conway dead to rights but broke his stick when he tried to blast home the shot from 15 feet.
Union finally solved Conway at 9:22 on the third on a fluke goal. Keeping the puck in at the point, rookie Phil McDavitt wound up for a huge slapper. But an on-edge puck resulted in what looked more like a Phil Mickelson lob-wedge golf shot than a slapshot, and the puck, through a screen of arms on bodies waving in front, landed perfectly over Conway’s head and in the net to knot the game at one.
As deflating as the goal could have been, it instead seemed to motivate Holy Cross, and McKay’s goal at 17:05 of the third turned out to be the winner. Tyler McGregor added an empty netter with 54 seconds remaining to account for the 3-1 final.
The loss pushes Union back to 7-6-1 overall, though the Dutchmen are still 6-0-0 in the ECACHL.
Holy Cross pulled within a game of .500 with the victory and Pearl hopes that this can propel his club to some overdue success within Atlantic Hockey.
“I think it’s a jumpstart for the games in front of us,” said Pearl, whose team returns to league action this weekend against Army, a club that has given Holy Cross fits this season. “I think tonight [the team] found out that you don’t have to score six goals to win a hockey game. You have to chip [the puck] and take a hit and your offense will happen.”