TROY, N.Y. — Playoff hockey, in all its gritty, hard-fought glory, has finally returned to the Houston Field House after a four year hiatus.
It happened to come on the day that Rensselaer held its final classes before spring break, but that did not stop a chock-full student section from showing up to prove the signs which have appeared around the Institutes campus are indeed true, (they) believe in Seth Appert.
It is the first time in the four year tenure of the RPI coach that his team has earned home ice in the ECAC playoffs.
But fans of the Brown Bears are also starting to believe in first year head coach Brendan Whittet, who despite having his team miss home ice only by virtue of a loss at Princeton in their final game of the regular season, led 11th-seeded Brown to a 3-1 come-from-behind win over sixth-seeded RPI in game one of this best-of-three ECAC playoff opening round.
What many experts saw as the biggest mismatch of the four first round series in the ECAC obviously will be anything but. This is a situation that both coaches are now familiar with after last year when RPI, then the 11th seed themselves, upset a Dartmouth team with Whittet behind the bench as an assistant in two games.
I actually mentioned that was the team that beat us and what they did was the frustrated us last year, Whittet said. They stuck to their game plan, took care of their own zone, and when they had a chance, they buried it.
The game was a physical battle from the very beginning, with each side finishing their checks, before and after the whistle. Brown generated two good chances in the opening minutes when they jammed up the area in front of Allen York with the puck loose in the low slot, but he was able to keep his eyes on the puck and made a jumping save with his left shoulder on Harry Zolnierczyk before getting plowed over by a mob into the goal cage.
The early roughness continued as David Brownschidle took one too many steps into a hit on Brandon Pirri along the boards and the two continued to chat after play was halted. Both went to the box for unsportsmanlike conduct, but Brownschidle was assessed an additional two minutes for the initial charge, putting the Engineers on their first power play at 7:06 of the first.
Mike Bergin would hook up with Paul Kerins 51 seconds into the man advantage to give the hosts the early lead. Bergin sent a pass from the middle of the blue line to Kerins forehand on the goal line at the right side of the net. Kerins initial quick jab attempt was thwarted by Michael Clementes left pad, but he grabbed puck off the goalies leg and walked around him to the front of the crease to slide it into the open net.
Pirri took two more penalties later in the first for a total of three in the opening frame, but Brown failed to muster a single shot on their two power plays. Indeed, special teams were kept off the board the rest of the way, with Brown finishing 0-3 and RPI 1-5 with the extra man.
The Engineers almost had a chance to add to their lead with about 18 minutes gone by when Clemente gave the puck away to Patrick Cullen behind his net. By the time Cullen had found an open Pirri in the left circle, Clemente had managed to hustle back around in front and he then reacted quickly again to make a stop on Marty OGrady from point-blank range after Pirri fed him in the slot.
Minutes later, it looked as if the Men of Troy were going to receive 30 seconds worth of two-man advantage time to finish the first and potentially carry over into the second. Already on the power play, Cullen was absolutely hauled down from behind on a shoulder-high hook by Jeremy Russell while entering the Brown zone. But Cullen was handed a very controversial embellishment call to even things up and deny RPI that opportunity.
The Bears came out of the locker room after the first intermission with a greater sense of energy and after killing off the :22 that remained on the RPI power play to start the second, they completely dominated the early minutes. So much so that Appert used his only timeout just 3:28 into the period to both settle his team down and wake them up.
This was after his team was handed a gift seconds earlier as Chris Zaires had somehow inexplicably missed a wide-open net. Skating in on the left wing, essentially on a two-on-none with a trailing defenseman, Zolnierczyk had made the play by holding the puck the perfect amount of time to force York to commit to his side and go down right as he sent the puck over to Zaires.
If it were not for Browns ultimate victory coming from behind in the third erasing it from their memories, fans leaving the game tonight would still be wondering how Zaires somehow got handcuffed and had his shot trickle through the crease and past the far post before a defenseman stuffed it under Yorks back.
Despite neither team scoring in the second, it is the period with the most and best chances, particularly for the visitors. Zolnierczyk, the fastest and most intense player on the ice all night, had another chance to tie things up about seven minutes into the period, this time doing things alone but getting robbed by the right arm of York as he lay flat on his back in the crease. Bruno then had a short-handed chance with a 3-on-2 but York made the initial save on Aaron Volpatti before smacking a dangerously floating rebound away out of mid-air with the goal stick.
The physicality also hit a fever pitch midway through the second. After Bobby Farnham took a run at York, who was leaning over to cover the puck, and inadvertently caught the goalies head with his leg, he caught air as Jerry DAmigo laid him out from behind in front of the net.
After a first period that was tightly called with eight penalties, including a pair of matching minors, the referees swallowed their whistles on that play. It was just as well though, as the closeness of the score was enough to keep the teams in check and deter them from crossing the line between a physical game and a dirty one.
The Bears would tie the game and then take the lead within the first three minutes of the third period. Jarred Smith got the equalizer at 1:40 when he received pass through the goal mouth from Brownschidle and buried it inside the left arm of York from a bad angle along the goal line to the right of the net.
Just over a minute later, York made a costly error. He came around the back of the net to corral the puck, but then fed it along the boards right to an open Devin Timberlake on the right-wing half-wall who quickly sent it toward the net to try and hook up with fellow co-captain Volpatti. York somehow turned aside the tip of the stick of Volpatti, but Farnham was there to clean up the rebound and put his team ahead 2-1 at 2:53.
We wanted to be very accountable in what we did, Whittet commented on his teams game plan. We dont want to play track meets (like we have been). We wanted to make sure we played really sound defensive hockey and try to create our chances, which I think we did from the second period on. I told our guys to stick with our game plan and keep driving the net and things would happen.
Im not Nostradamus. I just told them to keep playing the same way and not deviate from what we were doing. Its a series so we try to ground our guys and let them know as soon as they leave the doors here tonight, tomorrows a new day. I still feel that were the major underdog, so were going to have to come out much better than we did tonight.
The crowd and their Engineers certainly stepped up the intensity another level after falling behind, but as the case was more and more as the game wore on, RPIs shots were kept to the perimeter and Clemente got himself in position where they were mostly right into his chest. He finished the game with 24 saves to Yorks 25.
Volpatti added an empty-netter at 18:55 of the third to ice it when he won a battle for the