WEST POINT, N.Y. — On Friday, Josh Kassel made 24 saves in a 4-0 win over American International, his third straight shutout against the Yellow Jackets and another in a string of “lights out performances” for the junior netminder. On Saturday, the Black Knights returned to Tate Rink, looking to turn out the lights on AIC’s season.
Then, the lights went out. Literally.
The second game of the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinal series between the Black Knights and Yellow Jackets was delayed approximately half an hour by a power outage. The lights went out at 13:15 of the first period, as the teams prepared to resume play following a Joey Ammon goal that tied the game at 1-1.
As it turned out, though, the power outage was just about the only thing that could extend the Yellow Jackets’ season, as the Black Knights dispatched the Yellow Jackets, 5-2, sweeping the best-of-three series and advancing to next weekend’s Atlantic Hockey championship series at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y.
“It feels good,” said Army coach Brian Riley, whose team won despite top-line right wing Like Flicek serving a one-game suspension for violation of team rules. “To know that you’re one of five teams going to Rochester, that’s certainly a good feeling, because it wasn’t easy. I have to give AIC a lot of credit. They’re certainly a well-coached team. They made it hard for us this weekend.”
“There’s just disappointment right now,” AIC coach Gary Wright said. “I thought we really came to play. I thought we played pretty hard, but they’re a very fine team and I wish them all the luck in Rochester. I’m pretty proud of our kids at the same time. I thought we competed very hard.”
While the Yellow Jackets came out strong with their season on the line and led 2-1 at the first intermission, a disastrous AIC power play at the end of the second period saw the Black Knights turn a 2-2 tie into a 4-2 lead, an advantage that Army would not relinquish.
With Jeff Fearing in the box for hooking, the Black Knights sprung Owen Meyer on a shorthanded breakaway. When Meyer, Army’s leading scorer, was hooked down by Greg Genovese, he was awarded a penalty shot against AIC’s Tom Fenton, which he proceeded to bury to make it 3-2 with his 21st goal of the season.
“You don’t get too many chances at those,” Meyer said. “When you do, they definitely give your team momentum. Capitalizing on your opportunities, that what playoffs are all about.”
Less than 20 seconds later, yet another breakaway produced an Army goal, this one off a two-on-one that ended with Ken Rowe one-timing a Cody Omilusik feed past Fenton for his ninth goal of the season.
“We just got caught in,” Wright said. “We took some chances that, maybe, we shouldn’t have. We got caught up ice, and they kind of stormed us. Obviously, that was a bad time for us. Unfortunately, it had to happen at a pretty critical time.”
The wild finish to the second period erased almost all memories of a first period that saw AIC show that it wasn’t ready for the season to end. Mark Pavli opened the scoring on a power play at 9:12 when he redirected a Chris Bolognino shot past Army’s Josh Kassel for his seventh goal of the season, ending Kassel’s shutout streak against AIC at 190:24.
Army responded at 13:15 on Ammon’s eighth goal of the season. With a delayed penalty called against the Yellow Jackets, Ammon fired the puck past Fenton. While the goal judge signaled a goal, the sound of the puck hitting the pipe was heard, and play continued. At the next stoppage of play, however, referee Tom Quinn conferred with the goal judge, and awarded the goal to Ammon.
“I wasn’t even sure if it was a goal,” Ammon said. “I didn’t see it go in. I guess the goal judge saw it, so that’s a good thing.”
A lengthy discussion of the goal followed, and as the teams prepared to resume play, the lights went out. When the power did not come back on, the teams were sent to the locker room, allowing both sides to regroup.
“I thought we got refocused,” Wright said. “We spent a little time talking about [the goal] – in the dark, which probably made it a little more dramatic – but we got over that.”
“We kind of got a little break with the power outage,” Meyer said. “It put a stop to the game, but it gave us a little bit of time to kind of gather ourselves and come back prepared.”
When play resumed. it wasn’t long before the Yellow Jackets retook the lead. Genovese deflected a Mike Little shot past Kassel for his ninth goal of the season, and the first frame ended with AIC holding a 2-1 lead.
“We deserved to be down after one by the way we played,” Riley said. “Talking to the guys, I just told them, ‘Hey, there’s still 40 minutes of hockey left,’ and we still had our best hockey ahead of us.”
Army responded in the second, outshooting the Yellow Jackets 14-8, and tied the game at 4:11 of the second when Rowe swept a Jeff Fearing rebound past Fenton for his eighth goal of the season. Then came the last minute of the second, the penalty to Fearing, and Army’s dynamic penalty kill performance, which nearly included a third goal as Meyer wreaked havoc in the AIC zone in the waning seconds of the period.
“That was the turning point right there,” Riley said. “You get a penalty shot and capitalize, but then to come back right off that, while you’re still killing the penalty and score what was an unbelievable goal, that gave us the spark that we needed and took some momentum away from them.”
Army put the game away at the start of the third period, as Bryce Hollweg notched a power play goal at 1:59, one-timing an Eric Sefchik feed past Fenton for his 10th goal of the season. It was the first goal of the weekend for the Army extra-man unit in 10 tries, an area that the Black Knights will look to shore up before heading to Rochester.
“Even before that, I thought that our guys were moving the puck around, we were creating some chances, and it was definitely nice to see a goal,” Riley said. “I think power plays run hot and cold. Ours has been cold, but maybe that [goal] is something, going up to Rochester, we can start getting hot.”
“Our power play has been inconsistent all year,” Meyer said. “It’s a goal for us to gain some consistency by just keeping it simple.”
AIC outshot Army 10-9 in the final frame, but Kassel remained strong in net, and finished with 28 saves on 30 shots, while Tom Fenton made 29 saves on 34 shots in the loss, only his 10th decision of the season (0-8-2).
“We felt good giving Tom a shot,” Wright said of his backup netminder. “I thought he played pretty well. He’s a wonderful kid. For six weeks, he didn’t get any time in the net, virtually at all, and he handled it with such maturity and class. He supported Dan [Ramirez] so well.”
With the win, Army improves to 19-13-4 on the season and will face a to-be-determined opponent next Saturday in the Atlantic Hockey semifinals. AIC, meanwhile, finishes the season at 8-23-5, the eight wins being the most for AIC since Atlantic Hockey was formed.
“Obviously, we’re not pleased with our record,” Wright said. “I don’t think our stretch at the end was necessarily indicative that we weren’t competitive. I didn’t feel there was any let up on our part.”
The Black Knights, meanwhile, hope their proudest moments of the season are yet to come.
“I think adversity is something you have to overcome to be a championship team,” Meyer said. “We faced a lot of adversity tonight.”