OSWEGO, N.Y. — Plattsburgh continues to do in the playoffs what they were unable to do in the regular season — play strong defense, get solid goaltending, and convert on their opportunities. This enabled them to win their fourth straight playoff game and propel them into the conference championship.
Once again, the Cardinals came from a one-goal deficit to defeat Oswego, 3-1, and sweep the Lakers in the SUNYAC semifinal round.
The two keys to this game, and the series, was goaltending and Plattsburgh’s defense down low.
Craig Neilson made 27 saves in allowing just one goal. The goaltender, who struggled this year, has regained his form.
“The goaltending position is a lot like a batter,” Plattsburgh coach Bob Emery said. “I’m comparing Craig Neilson to the leadoff hitter, Derrick Damon. He was in a slump big time, but when he got out of the slump, the team played well. That’s what’s happening right now with our team.”
“We said at the beginning of the series that goaltending would be the difference,” Oswego coach Ed Gosek said. “I thought Neilson was outstanding. [Ryan Scott] didn’t make the big saves when we needed it.”
Plattsburgh’s last two goals can be described as weak goals. With the score tied at one apiece midway through the second period, Anthony Leccese picked up the loose puck off to the side. He put a soft shot on net that stayed on the ice. Scott either didn’t see the shot or misplayed it, as it slowly went by him just inside the far post.
For the entire third period, Oswego poured the pressure on the Plattsburgh net. However, whenever they got down low, they hardly ever got their stick on the puck.
“Most goals now are scored around the net,” Emery said. “We did a good job backchecking the back scoring area, picking up sticks in front. That’s what we worked on all week.”
Gosek agreed. “I thought they did an outstanding job packing it in down low,” he said. “They knew our strength and our strength is to control the puck down low below the goal line, being patient, working the puck. They committed four men down low and took that away from us. We saw that last night, and they did it to us again tonight.”
The key moment in the game came at the 6:28 mark of the third period. Oswego was applying a lot of pressure when it appeared Ryan Koresky scored, firing the puck into the near upper corner. However, just before the shot, the referee raised his hand for a cross-checking penalty on C.J. Thompson in front of the net. The whistle blew as soon as the shot was taken, and instead of a tie game, Plattsburgh was on the power play.
They didn’t convert, and Oswego was back applying pressure while Plattsburgh was back to clogging up the front of the net.
“In the third period, I thought our guys played really well,” Gosek said. “I can’t fault anyone.”
“We played hard in the first two and played smart in the third,” Emery said.
The Cardinals clinched the game on another weak shot that Scott could not handle. With under four minutes to play, Ryan Busby skated the puck down the right side, and using his linemates as decoy, shot it himself. It was a soft shot that beat Scott who may have been preparing for the pass.
Gosek did not lay all the blame on his goaltender. “I thought he made some good saves,” he said. “He got us to where we’re at, so I’m not second guessing him. The bottom line is, we did not score. We were held to two last night, and we were held to one tonight. When you average five goals, we have to find some way to generate offense.”
The one goal Oswego did score came early, at 2:12 of the first period. Oswego got Plattsburgh to run around in their own zone a bit enabling Thompson to stand wide open on the goalie’s right. When he received the crossing pass from Scott Irwin, he easily scooped it into the unguarded net.
That was the second goal of the series scored by the fourth line. That didn’t exactly make Gosek happy.
“We didn’t generate anything,” he said. “In big games, your big guys have to produce, and we didn’t. We get a goal last night from a fourth line from the power play. Tonight we get a goal from our fourth line. Fourth line. Where are your big guys when you need them? In big games you need big performances out of your top guys, and for whatever reason, we didn’t get it.”
Plattsburgh tied the game in the first period on a beautiful shot by Justin Rafferty during a power play. He controlled the puck on the upper left faceoff circle and saw an opening over Scott’s right shoulder. Using the defenseman who started going down as a screen, Rafferty placed it perfectly into the opening.
The only glaring mistake Plattsburgh made all series was when Jayson Barnhart had a breakaway on an empty net (Scott was pulled for the final 2:28 of play). Instead of an easy goal, Ryan Busby got called for obstruction interference behind the play. Despite a full two minutes of six-on-four, Oswego was stopped time and time again, and the game ended 3-1.
Oswego may, or may not, have finished their season at 18-6-3. They still have an outside chance at an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. “We’ll give them a couple of days off,” Gosek said of this week’s schedule. “Realistically, I don’t know where that stands. We need help from other people, obviously. But, we’ll practice and keep sharp.”
Koresky received a game disqualification after the final buzzer, so if Oswego does make the NCAA’s, he will not be able to play in the first game.
Meanwhile, Plattsburgh’s season definitely does continue as they are now at 18-11. They will play at Geneseo, who beat Fredonia 5-1 to win their semifinal round, 1-0-1, in a best of three game (technically, a first to three points) series, starting Friday night. The Cardinals will be hoping that Paul Kelly, whose injury in the Potsdam series during the play-in round kept him out this weekend, will be back in the lineup.