FAIRFIELD, Conn. — Sacred Heart remains one of the hottest Division I hockey teams in the country. Freshman Eric Delong scored two third-period goals as the Pioneers rallied for a 3-1 victory over Holy Cross on Friday at the Milford Ice Pavilion in their final regular-season home game of the season.
“We weren’t really battling as hard (in the first two periods) as we have at times and they were playing a good game,” said Delong, who recorded his 11th and 12th goals of the year. “I think we decided to wait until the third to take it to another gear.”
Pat Knowlton scored the tying goal, also his 12th, 9:12 into the third for Sacred Heart, which needs just two points in its final three games to clinch home-ice advantage in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Hockey tournament.
Friday’s win enabled Sacred Heart to move three points ahead of Air Force in the battle for second place in Atlantic Hockey. Air Force lost to first-place RIT, 3-2, in overtime Friday.
“Holy Cross played an unbelievable game,” Sacred Heart coach C.J. Marottolo said. “They really bottled us up. We couldn’t get to the net the first and second periods. I give them a lot of credit. We like to play fast. We like to play transition hockey and finally in the third period, we started using our speed.”
In early December, it would have been hard to imagine the Pioneers (17-10-4) being in this position, as they dropped to 3-9-2 following a 4-2 loss at Army. Since then, however, Sacred Heart has lost just once, a 5-2 defeat to RIT on December 5.
With Friday’s victory, the Pioneers improved to 14-1-2 in their last 17 contests.
There are two basic reasons for Sacred Heart’s turnaround – the improved play of freshman goaltender Steven Legatto and the high-scoring line of Nick Johnson, Dave Jarmin and Knowlton. Heading into play Friday, Johnson was tied nationally for the lead in goals with 23 and ranked third in scoring
with 44 points. Jarmin was right behind Johnson with 43 points, while his 33 assists were tied for first in the country.
“We attribute (the turnaround) to being more disciplined,” Marottolo said. “We were taking too many penalties, unnecessary penalties. We just shot ourselves in the foot game after game after game.”
However, the Pioneers have been nearly unbeatable the last two-plus months, yet on Friday, they were frustrated for nearly 2 1/2 periods and appeared headed for their first shutout loss of the season.
Ryan Driscoll had given the Crusaders (10-16-5) a 1-0 lead at 10:12 of the second period. Driscoll took a pass from Andrew Cox in the slot and snapped a quick wrist shot past Legatto for just his second goal of the season.
“They were trapping us a lot, having one guy in and keeping four guys back,” Jarmin said. “We weren’t getting the puck behind them and skating fast enough in the first couple periods.”
However, just before the midpoint of the third period, Knowlton ignited the Pioneers with a brilliant individual effort. He skated virtually the entire length of the ice before his shot from close range caromed off the leg of Holy Cross netminder Thomas Tysowsky, also a freshman, and trickled across the goal line.
“(Knowlton’s) having a great year,” Marottolo added. “He got the puck in the neutral zone and he’s a great skater. He got to the outside, he cut into the net. It was a great goal.”
The goal clearly fired up the Pioneers, who won for the first time this season when trailing after 40 minutes(1-7-1). Sacred Heart outshot Holy Cross 16-8 in the third, finishing with a 38-30 edge.
“I think our style all year long has been to be an aggressive team that tries to take the play to the other team,” Delong said. “I thought in that period, especially, we did that.”
Just under three minutes after Knowlton’s goal, Delong deflected Alex Stuart’s shot from the point past
Tysowsky at 12:10 to make it 2-1. Delong delivered the clincher with 1:35 remaining.
“The third period is what we’re used to, and that’s how we’ve been winning a lot of games in the last past month, two months,” Jarmin added. “That’s Sacred Heart hockey. We’ve grown accustomed to the fast pace, just not making a lot of mistakes.”
Legatto finished with 29 saves and Tysowsky stopped 35 shots being pulled for an extra skater with 1:22 remaining.
Sacred Heart and Holy Cross complete their home-and-series in Worcester, Mass. tomorrow. The Pioneers
then conclude the regular season with two games at Air Force next weekend in a series that will decide second place in Atlantic Hockey.