WEST POINT, N.Y. — Army got to the top of the Atlantic Hockey standings by riding the hot play of goaltender Josh Kassel, and if Friday’s game against American International is any indication, the Black Knights may very well reach the winner’s circle in the conference tournament by the exact same means.
The junior from Greensburg, Pa., who hasn’t given up more than three goals since January 18, stopped all 24 shots he saw on Friday as Army posted a 4-0 win over the Yellow Jackets in the first game of a best-of-three Atlantic Hockey quarterfinal series between the teams at Tate Rink.
“He’s just stopping all the pucks he’s supposed and then some,” Army head coach Brian Riley said. “The way he’s playing gives our guys so much. It’s just an unbelievable run that he’s on”
“Another good defensive game,” Kassel said. “A couple of breakdowns, but I was able to make the save, and the rest of the game, they did a good job blocking shots.”
AIC head coach Gary Wright, for his part, could only look on in frustration as Kassel turned aside the Yellow Jackets’ best chances.
“He made some big saves,” Wright said of Kassel. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get pucks by him. Obviously, he’s an outstanding goalie. They’ve got a very fine team already, and then you’ve got to face him at the end. We had some chances and he made some big saves.”
For Kassel, it was his third consecutive shutout against the Yellow Jackets, not to mention the third straight 4-0 Army win over AIC. However, while the previous two Army victories saw the Black Knights solidly in command after 40 minutes, Friday’s win had a much different feeling to it.
Army took a 1-0 lead a mere 3:11 into the game on the ninth goal of the season for Bryce Hollweg. Hollweg’s linemates, Owen Meyer and Luke Flicek, picked up the assists on the goal, the 41st for that combination this season.
“Our line had it in their zone a bit,” Hollweg said, “and we were able to cycle the puck around. Flicek came up and made a nice backdoor pass. You’re not going to miss those very often.”
Following Hollweg’s goal, though, the tide turned, as AIC, which gave up the first five shots on goal, outshot Army 7-2 over the remainder of the period, then stayed even with Army in the second, as both teams registered 11 shots and failed to score.
“We really prepared for them hard this week,” Wright said. “We had a game plan. For the most part, I think our kids executed it.”
“AIC’s a good team,” said Riley. “I think they play a style where they can frustrate you. They were doing a good job tonight.”
However, while the second period and early portions of the third suggested a white-knuckled battle to the finish, Robb Ross had other ideas. Ross made it 2-0 at 8:56 of the final frame with his ninth goal of the season and 30th of his Army career. Ross collected a Drew Pierson rebound just off the right post, holding the puck as he moved closer to the goal line, then flipped the puck up over AIC netminder Dan Ramirez, and it settled across the goal line for the two-goal lead.
“I didn’t think it was going to go in,” Ross said. “I thought it was going to be a rebound, but it hit a couple of bodies or a couple of sticks, and luckily, it went in.”
The puck may have slipped just an inch over the line, but it went a mile in terms of its effect on the Black Knights.
“Once we got that second goal,” Riley said, “our guys relaxed a lot more. Up to that point, they were playing kind of tight, but when we got that second goal, you could just sense that it gave our guys a lift.”
Army extended the lead to 3-0 at 12:25 when Will Ryan redirected an Aaron Anderson slap shot past Ramirez for his third goal of the season, and made it 4-0 on a breakaway at 13:10 when Eric Sefchik went top shelf on Ramirez for his third of the season. The Black Knights stayed solid the rest of the way to finish off the win, although AIC showed the ability to compete with the conference’s top team.
“This was a much different 4-0 game than the other ones,” Wright said, who saw Ramirez make 27 saves in the loss. “That’s a small consolation. I thought that we competed pretty hard, we had a game plan, executed it for the most part, and it was tight in the third period.”
“I wouldn’t have imagined that this game would end up 4-0,” Riley said. “Certainly, when it was 1-0, I didn’t. AIC did a good job.”
The Yellow Jackets will try to even the series and the Black Knights try to put it away when the two teams meet again at Tate on Saturday night.