A Special Senior Night
As the season hits the final stretch in February, the usual litany of end-of-season events starts to be held. One of those is Senior Night, where each school celebrates its graduating class, saying a tearful farewell to the student-athletes they have gotten to know so well.
Neumann started off the tradition this year last Saturday night as the Knights took on No. 1 ranked Elmira in their last home game of the season. The Neumann faithful gathered to say goodbye to a group of seniors who rescued a program from obscurity, turning the team from a laughing stock to a national power in less than four years.
â€œWe needed to demonstrate our respect for these pioneers,â€ said Neumann coach Phil Roy. â€œThese guys went through the thick and thin to be where Neumann is right now. They basically put Neumann on the map and built it. It wasnâ€™t always pretty. It wasnâ€™t always fun and games. They went through a lot of ups and downs, sometimes a lot of downs.â€
Mike Collichio and Mike Gooch (second team All-American) joined Neumann in October, 2004 as freshmen on a team that struggled through a dismal 0-12-1 first half of the season under new coach Dennis Williams.
To further kick the team while it was down, eight players were suspended or dismissed from the team over the holidays that year for NCAA gambling violations. Coach Williams scrambled over the holiday break to put gather enough new players so the team could continue the season.
Oh, what a job he did. Neil Trimm (first team All-American), Dayne Bihn, Jeff Nuttal, and Sean Cryer joined the team in January, 2005 and started the turnaround. Vastly improved, the Knights went 4-5-1 during the second half of the 2004-2005 season.
The team continued to build the next year, finishing with the schoolâ€™s first winning record (14-10-1). Neumann finished last year at 17-5-5, making it all the way to the ECAC West Championship game before losing to Manhattanville in overtime.
Joining the six full-term players as seniors on Saturday were transfers Tyler Rivers and Mark Van Vliet.
Just to make Senior Night even more special, Neumann knocked off the last undefeated team in all of collegiate hockey Saturday, dropping Elmira, 1-0.
â€œThings worked out that we were able to shine through that game and it made it even more special,â€ said Roy. â€œItâ€™s always nice to have a Senior Game on a win.â€
The game turned out to be quite a nail-biter. Van Vliet tallied the only goal of the contest, almost exactly at the midway point, and Mike Collichio saved all 37 shots he faced to seal the victory.
â€œWe got lucky,â€ said Roy. â€œWe got one in and Mike [Collichio] stopped what he faced. There were quality shots coming from Elmiraâ€™s side. [The referees] definitely let us play with only one penalty called the whole game. It was a bit too much at times but it was a great playoff hockey game.â€
Let them play, indeed. The referee crew called twelve penalties in Fridayâ€™s game, but a different crew was brought in for Saturdayâ€™s game. Despite the same two teams, with the same playoff intensity level, being on the same ice, a completely different standard was set for penalties — so much for consistency in the referee circles.
â€œIt is the same teams at the same intensity, but one game from another you can do some stuff that the previous night you couldnâ€™t and vice versa,â€ said Roy. â€œEvery game is different and you have to adapt to them.â€
Take Three Points and Move Down?
Emblematic of why college hockey so enjoyable to watch, Manhattanville and Utica played a home-and-home series this past weekend that saw a bit of everything: great goaltending, offensive flurries, hard hitting, high shot counts, and highlight reel goals.
The Pioneers of Utica got the better of the results, though, taking three points from the Valiants. But in an odd twist of fate, the Pioneers actually lost a spot in the standings, slipping from a tie for fourth place to alone in fifth place because Hobart swept Lebanon Valley.
Fridayâ€™s game at the Aud, in front of over 2,100 fans, was a game of momentum. Manhattanville jumped out to a 2-0 lead, Utica answered back with three goals of its own, then the Valiants retook the lead with a pair of scores before Utica got a lucky bounce to tie the game.
â€œIt was a great fan game, up and down the ice,â€ said Utica coach Gary Heenan. â€œGreat saves by both goaltenders and beautiful goals by both teams. We put ourselves in the box in the third and they capitalized. Then we were fortunate to get a lucky goal on the 6-on-5. Physically, they beat the heck out of us again.â€
The â€˜lucky bounceâ€™ ended up being the game-tying goal with exactly two minutes left in the game after Utica pulled goaltender Adam Dekker. Colin Kingston, from behind the Manhattanville net, tried to feed a linemate out in front of the net, but instead the pass deflected off of Valiants goaltender Paul Reimerâ€™s skate and into the net.
â€œIt was a lucky bounce, no question,â€ said Heenan. â€œWe set up a play and won our draw back. The play was there to be made, we just didnâ€™t make it. It came off a shot that ended up a rebound behind their net. Their goalie came off the line, I donâ€™t know why.â€
The comeback salvaged a point for Utica, after the Pioneers had spent most of the game in the penalty box giving Manhattanville seven power plays. Penalties have been a problem for the Pioneers of late. Utica has amassed 133 minutes in penalties the last four league games, while its opponents (Elmira and Manhattanville) have only gotten tagged for 54 minutes.
â€œWeâ€™ve been in the box the last four games like crazy,â€ said Heenan. â€œFor whatever reason, weâ€™re just in the box a lot and that is where we are getting out shot by a ton. The shooting range was open on the power play recently.â€
Utica got off to a better start on Saturday, amassing a 2-0 lead by the end of the first period. True to form for the weekend, Manhattanville came storming back in the second stanza, narrowing the margin to 2-1 and getting a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:33 midway through the period.
But the Pioneers stayed aggressive on the penalty kill and the pressure paid off. Two men down, sophomore Aaron Jeffery blocked a shot near the blue line, raced down the length of the ice, and scored a shorthanded goal that eventually became the game winner.
â€œSimilar to what Manhattanville does to other teams, we decided we were going to pressure, which I donâ€™t think teams expect,â€ said Heenan. â€œWe forced the guy at the point, blocked a shot, and then a battle was on through the neutral zone. Their goaltender charged, Jefferyâ€™s fought through, and it was an unbelievable highlight reel goal. It sealed the win for us.â€
The weekend results mean that Utica and Manhattanville split the season series right down the middle, with a victory, a loss, and a tie for each team. This was the first three point weekend given up by Manhattanville is almost a year, last happening when Elmira spoiled the Valiants undefeated season the weekend of Feb. 16-17, 2007.
Game of the Week
After tough games last weekend, neither Neumann nor Utica get a break this time around as they square off against each other at The Aud.
Elmira is running away with the regular season title, meaning that the other teams in the league are vying for second through fifth. Each position has its own rewards, and the higher a team can finish in the standings, the more playoff hockey their own fans will get to see.
With another good weekend, Utica could vault from fifth to as high as third place.
Meanwhile, Neumann needs to make hay while it can. The Knights have played the most games of all the teams in contention, and need to earn points this weekend to stay near the top of the heap when they have next weekend off.