WEST POINT, N.Y. — Should RIT have tied Army for the Atlantic Hockey regular season title, determining which team would be the top seed in the conference tournament would have been a bit of a mess.
The first tiebreaker, by conference rules, is head-to-head record, which wouldn’t do too much good, since the teams played to a pair of ties at Ritter Arena in November. The second tiebreaker — goal differential in head-to-head games — would have been similarly ineffective.
For the record, the third tiebreaker — goal differential in conference games — would have given the nod to Army, but the Black Knights decided to skip all the confusion and win the title outright.
Owen Meyer’s 20th goal of the season broke a 1-1 tie early in the third period and gave Army a lead it would not relinquish, as the Black Knights celebrated Senior Night at Tate Rink with a 3-2 win over Sacred Heart in a penalty-filled affair that had the referees struggling to “separate church and state” all night long.
“Obviously, a hard fought game,” said Army head coach Brian Riley. “I knew coming in that this was going to be a good series. Sacred Heart plays hard, they’ve got good players, and those are truly evenly matched teams that went hard every shift.”
“I was proud of the way our guys responded from last night,” said Sacred Heart coach Shaun Hannah, whose Pioneers fell by a 6-1 margin on Friday at the Milford Ice Pavilion. “I didn’t think we played well at all last night, and I thought we came out and played a better game. We stepped on our own feet. Penalties were an issue tonight, but I think the big positive was how we just kept battling.”
Meyer’s go-ahead goal, however, came at even strength, and it came at 1:27 of the final frame, as he skated in on a 2-on-1 with Luke Flicek, after taking the pass from Bryce Hollweg, and beat the Pioneers’ Stefan Drew for the go-ahead goal, another big goal from the Black Knights’ top line. Together, the trio of Hollweg, Meyer and Flicek has 40 of Army’s 90 goals this season.
“My job on the line is to get the puck to those two,” Hollweg said. “I just dished it up on the boards. they were both open, and we just went on a rush there. You give Meyer a shot like that, he’s going to put it in every time.”
The first period was an intense physical affair — setting the tone for the evening — with four penalties on each side, and one goal apiece. The Pioneers took a 1-0 lead at 7:18 when Alexandre Parent one-timed a feed from Bear Trapp past Josh Kassel on the power play for his 16th goal of the season, and the Black Knights tied it up at 9:36 as Robb Ross’ second effort on a wraparound from the left-wing pushed the puck past Drew and into the net for his eighth tally of 2007-08.
The second period continued the trend of intense physical play, with eight more penalties called, six on the Pioneers, but no scoring. Ironically, Army’s best scoring opportunity came on a penalty kill as Ken Rowe was hauled down on a shorthanded breakaway and awarded a penalty shot at 9:06 of the middle frame. pad save Drew.
The third period got off to a fast start for the Black Knights with Meyer’s goal, and Zach McKelvie scored the eventual at 6:15 with a slapshot from the right wing circle, as Army made good on its third of four 5-on-3 advantages with its only power-play goal in 10 opportunities on the night.
“Our power play has struggled at times,” said Riley, “but we’ve tried to simplify it. We understand that to win games in this league, especially coming down the stretch and in the playoffs, you’re going to have to do that. Obviously, that power play goal proved to be a big goal for us, but you’ve got to give Sacred Heart a lot of credit. They do a good job killing penalties.”
“That’s been a big concern for our team all year,” Hannah said of the penalties. “I think it’s just a lack of discipline, an issue we’ve got to take care of. The penalty kill guys played outstanding tonight. I thought our guys really did a solid job.”
The Pioneers would cut the lead to 3-2 at 16:02 on a shorthanded goal by sophomore defenseman Corey Laurysen — the first goal of his collegiate career — and the Pioneers continued to push for the equalizer, ultimately running out of time.
“The second goal was just a group of people thinking that they could get that second goal,” Hannah said. “We were killing at the time, and we take another penalty, and we just keep coming at them, trying to find the third goal.”
With the regular season concluded, both teams will prepare for first round Atlantic Hockey playoff series. The Black Knights will be the top seed in the tournament, and will host 10th-place American International for a best-of-three series starting on March 7. The Pioneers, meanwhile, finish fourth in the conference, and host seventh seed Connecticut next weekend at the Milford Ice Pavilion.
“We’ve got to play consistently for 60 minutes,” Hannah said. “We’ve got to have a solid team effort. We’ve got to believe in each other and have a real team effort.”
Meanwhile, while the Black Knights have finished first, they know that they’re hardly finished.
“I think that we can leave tonight as it is,” Hollweg said. “The playoffs is a whole new season. AIC knows what they have on the line as well as we do. We’re not taking anyone lightly.”
Still, the first championship of the Brian Riley era at West Point is something to be savored, both for the 12 seniors who helped build to this point from the beginning, and for the man who guided them from behind the bench.
“I have a special place in my heart for these guys,” Riley said, “because when I was fortunate enough to take over here, these guys were freshmen. I have the utmost respect for them, to see what they’ve done as a group, to come in here and get this program to a different plays than it’s ever been before.”
“You can’t ask for anything more,” Ross said. “A championship, Senior Night, family and friends are out here. You can’t ask for anything more than this. We worked so hard since freshman year, this is unbelievable. We’re really happy, and we’re ready to go for the playoffs.”