PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The regular-season series between the Brown Bears and the Rensselaer Engineers was as close as can be; first the teams skated to a 3-3 tie in early December at Meehan Auditorium, and then the Engineers broke a 2-2 tie, tallying a goal with nine seconds remaining in their win at Houston Fieldhouse in February.
And Friday’s night’s game, the start of a best-of-three playoff series in the opening round of the ECAC tournament, looked to be played from the exact same script as the 11th-seeded Engineers matched sixth-seeded Brown goal for goal over the game’s first 50 minutes. In the last 10 minutes, though, Brown took advantage of favorable bounces and a Rensselaer miscue and tallied two quick goals en route to a 7-4 win and a 1-0 edge in the playoff series.
The game did not start auspiciously for Brown, a young team that lacks postseason experience, when senior captain Les Haggett was whistled for tripping a mere 13 seconds after the drop of the puck. But the Bears managed to kill off the first of eight RPI power plays, and seemed to gain momentum from their penalty kill’s success.
Freshman Chris Poli followed up the penalty kill less than two minutes later with his first goal of the season. Poli advanced the puck into the RPI end and then angled sharply towards the net, catching the Engineers playing back, and flicked a backhanded shot from close range that beat RPI goal Andrew Martin across his body, stick-side.
His strike gave Brown a 1-0 lead, but that advantage was only temporary because the Bears took another penalty — this time a call against winger Rugo Santini for boarding at 4:20 of the first period. On their second power play of the evening, the Engineers would not be denied; Brown freshman netminder Adam D’Alba slid across the crease to his right and stopped a close-range shot, but his momentum carried him away from the post, leaving RPI’s Kevin Broad unchecked. Broad easily poked home the loose puck and knotted the score at 1-1.
But just as swiftly as momentum had shifted from Brown to RPI, it pivoted back again. Engineer defenseman Matt McNeely was whistled for tripping at 6:39 of the first and he was joined in the box 12 seconds later by Brad Farynuk.
Boosted by almost two full minutes of five-on-three hockey, Brown broke the 1-1 deadlock when defenseman Sean Hurley forward Brian Ihnacak, after working the puck around the Engineer end, fired a pass cross-ice to forward Brian Ihnacak. Ihnacak, sitting at the top of the blue line, one-timed a hard shot past Martin, beating him cleanly and putting Brown up 2-1.
That 2-1 Brown lead held into the second period until RPI’s power play again asserted itself. Taking advantage of an interference call against Ihnacak the Engineers held the puck in the Brown end, keeping the Bears’ skaters from switching out for a fresh set of legs.
With both teams slow on their skates as the power play wound down, RPI’s Oren Eizenman prevented a clearing attempt and chased the puck down behind the Brown net, fending off a Brown defender in the process. Coming out on the other side of the net, Eizenman fired a quick pass across the ice to a streaking Alexander Valentin, who beat D’Alba on a quick shot and evened the score at 2-2 with 12:38 to play in the second.
Brown again composed itself and regained the lead for the third time on a goal by Hurley from beyond the left faceoff circle. It was that ability to compose itself, Brown head coach Roger Grillo said, that enabled his team to secure the crucial first win in the best-of-three series.
“It’s important [to win the first game of a series] because half our team has never really played in a playoff game,” Grillo said.
“They were nervous,” he added. “But they battled through.”
A large part of that battle was overcoming RPI’s special teams, which continually helped the Engineers rally from deficits. Over the course of the night, RPI scored power-play goals to even the score at 1-1, then at 2-2, and finally at 3-3.
“I thought we did a real good job on our special teams,” said Rensselaer head coach Dan Fridgen. “We had three goals out of eight opportunities [on the power play] and they had only one goal [in seven chances].”
The back-and-forth continued over the remainder of the second and the first half of the third periods: RPI defenseman Jake Luthi knocked home a juicy rebound to tie the score at 3. Poli notched his second of the night (and of the season) at 15:36 of the second on a point-blank shot, and RPI countered during an even strength score by forward Kevin Croxton at 11:17 of the third.
“I thought we outplayed them tonight, and we should have come away with a victory,” Fridgen said. “But at this time of the season, goaltending is critical and Andrew [Martin] didn’t have his best game.”
Martin ended the night with 18 saves on 25 shots, and counterpart D’Alba finished with 26 saves on 30 shots, so neither goaltender was a crucial part of his team’s success.
“I though we played well at times, I thought they played well at times,” Grillo said. “Obviously the puck bounced for us a couple of times, and that’s the difference in the game.”
One such favorable bounce came on the Bears’ fifth goal, when a collision between a Brown and an RPI player combined with the good eyesight of Ihnacak and a long pass that he fired behind all the RPI players to a streaking Brian McNary, to end the scoreboard deadlock for the remainder of the night. Brown added another goal by Mike Meech on a two-on-one break a minute later, and an empty netter at 18:49.