Quarterfinal Preview: Wentworth at Oswego

Oswego and Wentworth know each other quite well. They faced off twice this season.

The first time was in the finals of the Ben McCabe Tournament in Amherst. Oswego won 5-1 after leading 5-0, and outshot Wentworth, 45-34.

A month later, the game was in the Romney Field House, and Oswego again easily won at home, 9-1. Again, Oswego had a 5-0 lead before Wentworth scored, but this time Oswego came back with four more goals. The shots were 35-19 in favor of the Lakers.

“They’re [Oswego] a real good team,” Wentworth coach Bill Bowes said. “They’ve beaten a lot of guys, not just us. They are ranked number one in the East for a very good reason. They are the best team in the East.”

So, this should be another blowout, right? Maybe on paper. With the NCAA Quarterfinal round being just one game this year, anything can happen. Wentworth has been known to surprise teams, as in its 2-2 tie with RIT after opening up with a 5-2 win over Salem State. Couple that with Oswego possibly riding high after its thrilling three game series in the SUNYAC finals and it could get interesting.

If not, then yes, the fans at the Romney will have a lot to cheer about.

Oswego (23-6-1)

When Oswego is on, it can skate with any team in the country. That’s the catch, though. Throughout the SUNYAC playoffs, Oswego has had poor second periods, until the last game.

In the first game against Potsdam, it nearly cost the Lakers the game. In the second game, they had a big enough lead that it didn’t matter.

The same scenario repeated itself the following week when they lost the first game against Plattsburgh by letting up three goals in the second period. The next night, a massive 6-0 lead nearly disappeared when Plattsburgh scored four times in the second.

Finally, on the final day, the Lakers played a complete 60 minutes of hockey, and because of that, are in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998, when they lost both games in the quarterfinal round to Middlebury.

“I thought our whole team raised their level,” Oswego coach George Roll said of the second period in the last game.

If you give Oswego space, it will make you pay. It’s as simple as that. Mike Lukajic with 30 goals this year is the most likely to do so, but Oswego is loaded with capable goalscorers. They include John Hirliman, who injured his knee in the first game of the conference finals, but still played splendidly the next two days, with 17, Rob Smith with 16, Don Patrick with 15, Gary Bowman has 14, and Jocelyn Dubord wraps up the double digit goal scorers with 13.

That doesn’t mean guys like Andy Rozak, Matt Vashaw, Joe Carrabs, Tony DuFour, and Mark Strzoda, just to name a few, cannot score key goals at key moments, which they did against Plattsburgh.

This is truly a packed lineup in the offensive zone. A lot of people talk about how Potsdam’s Ryan Venturelli didn’t play well in the second game of the semifinals or how Plattsburgh’s Curtis Cribbie looked bad in the second game of the finals or how his replacement Craig Neilson let in some soft goals in Game 3. Maybe people are looking at it all wrong. Maybe, it’s Oswego’s explosive offense making these outstanding goalies look bad.

Meanwhile, guys like Carrabs, DuFour, Strzoda, and Justin Perron will be looked upon to stop Wentworth back in the defensive zone.

The key player, especially if Oswego goes into one of those second period naps, is going to be goaltender Tyson Gajda. While lots of other goalies in the league were getting all the raves and attention, Gajda locked down the starting spot for the Great Lakers, and quietly earned a .917 save percentage overall with a 2.32 GAA.

“Tyson was there all night for us,” Roll said after Game 2 of the SUNYAC finals. It’s a line Roll says often after games, as Gajda has been perhaps the most underrated goalie in the league.

Oswego is extremely effective on the power play and does an excellent job killing off penalties. So is Wentworth, as is expected of first place teams. The difference is that Oswego has much more speed and skating power, and as long as the Lakers use it and don’t look past Wentworth, they should be making plans after the game to attend the Frozen Four.

Wentworth (21-4-3)

The Leopards tied Lebanon Valley in the ECAC Northeast regular season which was expected as these teams were considered the favorites going into the season. What was a surprise was how Wentworth dispensed of Lebanon Valley in the conference championship game, 5-1. Wentworth almost didn’t make it there, surviving a 1-0 win, on an early goal, over Worcester State in the quarterfinals.

Wentworth’s goal scoring is concentrated in its current top line of Alex Marinkovich (25 goals, including eight on the power play), Brad Carpenter (22), and Shawn Metheral (16, with eight PPG). That group is also the top three scorers. Dave Zelasko is the only other player in double-digit goals with 16.

Stop that first line, and you put a damper on the Leopards’ offense. Let that line do its thing, and Wentworth will stay in any game.

Wentworth coach Bill Bowes, however, is more concerned in stopping Oswego’s offense. “They’re fast. They’re big. They’re skilled,” said Bowes.

Wentworth’s strength is its goaltending. “We’re very lucky to have two excellent goalies,” Bowes said.

The two he is referring to are Raj Bhangoo, who got a lot of attention when he made 51 saves in that tie against RIT, and Jamie Vanek, who has been the starter throughout the conference playoffs. Bowes goes with the hot goalie, and right now that is Vanek, who has a 1.51 GAA and a .945 save pct. Vanek has only lost once in 16 games.

“Vanek has been playing real well lately,” Bowes said. “So that’s who we’re going with.”

But how will Wentworth slow down the speed of Oswego? “Our plan is to play much better defensively than the last two times,” Bowes explains. “We need to be more aggressive on the forecheck. We’re going right after them. That’s our plan.”

Wentworth has nothing to lose. It will be coming into the game once again as the Northeast representative, and once again everybody is expecting it to be cannon fodder. If you are not paying attention, this can make the Leopards an extremely dangerous team.