UTICA, N.Y. — The more than 3,400 fans that packed The Aud in Utica were treated to an intense and thrilling game for the second semifinal contest of the ECAC West playoffs between the host Utica Pioneers and the Elmira Soaring Eagles.
Utica held single goal leads at three different times during regulation, but each time Elmira answered back to tie the game. Finally, at 8:12 of the second overtime period, Ron Mexico scored to give Utica is fourth, and final, one-goal lead of the game.
“There is no bigger win in the program’s history than this one,” said Utica coach Gary Heenan. “The town got behind us, and when the crowd got behind us, that gave us the boost.”
With the 4-3 victory, Utica advances to play Manhattanville in the ECAC West Finals on Sunday.
“How can you explain that game?” said Elmira coach Tim Ceglarski. “I thought it was a solid effort by both clubs for almost eighty nine minutes. Coach Gary Heenan has done a wonderful job putting together a hockey team, and it was a great atmosphere tonight.”
After a relatively listless start to the second overtime period, Utica’s Jimmy Sokol gained possession of the puck in the corner, deep in Elmira’s zone. He spotted Mexico streaking down the slot, and fed the puck to him. Mexico one-timed it past Elmira goaltender Greg Fargo for the game-winning goal, and the large crowd at the Utica Aud went home happy.
Elmira and Utica continued to joust in the third period, each stabbing with a rush and then blocking with a shield in its own end.
The Soaring Eagles were the first to draw blood in the period, tying the game 3-3 at 9:24 while on the power play. Elmira was working down low in the Utica corner when Jarrett Konkle gained the puck. He sent a strong pass to Craig Macdonald standing alone at the far side of the crease. Macdonald took his time to settle the puck, and then flipped the puck over sprawled Utica goaltender Adam Dekker for the goal.
Both goaltenders were called on to make huge saves during the final eight minutes of the game. A pad save by Dekker on a screened shot was matched at the other end by a strong toe stop by Elmira netminder Greg Fargo. Both goalies answered the calls and regulation time ended with a 3-3 tie.
Utica successfully killed off a tripping penalty at the beginning of the first overtime. Four minutes later, Elmira was called for a hooking penalty on a very similar situation as an opposing player broke to the net.
“When we got to overtime, I told them that we needed to get back to hitting,” said Heenan. “I thought the first overtime was our best period, and were beating them to pucks.”
During the Pioneers power play, Jared Allison missed a wide open net and overtime continued as Elmira killed off the remainder of the penalty. Utica carried play from that time forward in the first overtime period.
“At the time, I told [Allison] just to get the next one,” said Heenan. “But in the post game, I said that if we had lost the game I would have killed him.”
Both teams killed off another set of penalties during the second half of the period, and then skated 4-on-4 for the last minute of the first overtime. Utica held a distinct territorial advantage during the first overtime, but was unable to finish on its chances to end the game.
Utica started the first period putting a lot of pressure on Elmira, but the Soaring Eagles defense only bent and didn’t break. They were able to keep the majority of the Pioneers chances to the outside, or force shots that went wide of the net. But that kind of stingy defense limited Elmira’s offensive chances. The Soaring Eagles didn’t get their first shot on goal until over six minutes in to the period, including going without a shot on their first power play.
The pressure finally paid dividends for Utica at the 14:02 mark. Captain Jimmy Sokol spotted Ryan Dolan exiting the penalty box, just as Sokol crossed his own blue line. He wristed a quick pass, and Dolan was off to the races in to the Elmira zone unmarked. Dolan beat Fargo low glove side for Utica’s first goal, while shorthanded, at 14:02.
But penalty trouble by Utica let Elmira back into the contest less than two minutes later. Utica had two players in the penalty box and the Soaring Eagles set up shop in the Pioneers zone. Jarrett Konkle carried the puck laterally across the top of the slot, and finally sent a hard wrist shot towards the net. The puck deflected off of linemate Chris Mann, and in to the back of the net to tie the game 1-1 at 15:34.
Both teams continued to jossle for an advantage as the period wound down, but suddenly Utica sprung through center ice with a 3-on-1 advantage. Joe Watson carried the puck across the Elmira blue line, drew the lone defender to him, and then hit Dolan streaking down the slot. For the second time this period, Dolan found himself facing Fargo alone, and finished the play on the gloveside to score at 18:55.
The late goal gave Utica a 2-1 lead heading to the locker room for the first intermission.
During the intermission, Elmira coach Tim Ceglarski made adjustments to the game plan and the Soaring Eagles were able to interrupt the Utica breakout that had worked so easily in the first period.
“We tried to pressure two guys, and then the third guy read the play,” said Ceglarski. “I thought we did a pretty good job of that.”
The period was a highlight reel of end-to-end action by both teams. Play after play saw a rush up ice, a strong shot on goal, followed by a rush in the other direction. With the exception of when a team was on the power play, neither team was able to set up any sustained pressure during the period.
The teams swapped goals during the second half of the period, both coming on breaks up ice. Elmira scored first to tie the game 2-2 at 12:07. Michael Richard and Jason Cassells broke across the Utica blue line with only one Pioneer defender back. Cassells skated the puck around the defender just enough to get a wrist shot off from a tight angle. The puck eluded Dekker and trickled into the back of the net for the goal.
Utica’s goal at 16:56, to retake a one goal lead, came off another breakout play. Joe Watson, from his own end line, launched the puck down the right side of the ice, on to the stick of Nick Lynch waiting at the far Elmira blue line. Lynch skated in alone, waited for Fargo to commit, and then slid the puck between Fargo’s pads and the post for the goal.
The high speed action continued through the end of the period, but Utica was able to maintain its one goal advantage through the end of it, and carry the 3-2 lead in to the second intermission.