Utica traveled downstate to Manhattanvilleâ€™s Playland Ice Casino last Saturday to take on the Valiants. As was expected, it was a very physical battle as these two teams began the second half of their league schedules.
â€œIt was a spirited contest,â€ said Utica head coach Gary Heenan. â€œIt was a great hockey game with a lot of hard hits. They scored on the opportunities we gave them and we didnâ€™t. Both teams, thereâ€™s not a lot of love there. There is a lot of pressure with a month to go and a lot of emotion. Both teams were really going after a win.â€
Manhattanville won the penalty filled game — which saw 82 minutes of penalties distributed relatively evenly between the two teams — 4-2. The penalties included four misconducts, six unsportsmanlike conducts, and a slew of roughing and other physical penalties. To say this was a rough-and-tumble game might be an understatement.
Utica found itself down only by a goal with two minutes to go when Vincent Nucci was called for a tripping penalty. The referees tacked on an additional delay of game penalty against the Utica bench during the same stoppage in play, and suddenly the Pioneers found themselves killing off a 5-on-3 power play. Manhattanville scored just over a minute later to seal the victory.
â€œBasically, a call against us, weâ€™re down a goal, so I called my captain over to say weâ€™re going to need to fly a guy even though weâ€™re a man down,â€ said Heenan. â€œWhile he was at the bench, no hesitation, there was a delay of game call. Iâ€™ve never seen that ever before. We had a timeout as well, so in my opinion, charge me the timeout instead of calling the penalty. To put us two men down, with exactly two minutes left, down a goal, that is an interesting one.â€
With the loss, Uticaâ€™s league record falls to 3-4 and the Pioneers find themselves falling further and further behind the leaders. Uticaâ€™s six points have the Pioneers in fifth place in the league, three points behind Hobart.
â€œWeâ€™re 0-4 against the four big boys,â€ said Heenan, referring to Elmira, Hobart, Neumann, and Manhattanville. â€œWe were in every game. They could have gone either way. Weâ€™re getting our scoring changes. We went 0-4 on breakaways last Saturday. We feel like weâ€™re still going down a good path. Our power play looks good. You hate to say it as a head coach, but we could use a bounce.â€
Elmira hosted Neumann for a pair of games in the Thunderdomes last weekend and the contests lived up to all of the pre-game billing. High shot counts, end-to-end action, great goaltending, and a win by the home team all combined to entertain the Soaring Eagle fans.
Fridayâ€™s game was a back-and-forth affair where Elmira out shot Neumann, 50-23, but a strong goaltending performance by Knightsâ€™ netminder Ross MacKinnon ensured that the game ended in a 2-2 tie.
â€œFridayâ€™s game was back-and-forth,â€ said Elmira head coach Tim Ceglarski. â€œTheir goaltender played extremely well. Iâ€™m not sure how accurate our shot people were keeping shots, but there were a lot of them he made great saves on. We squandered a couple of opportunities on the power play.â€
The Soaring Eagles didnâ€™t squander any chances in Saturdayâ€™s rematch, Elmira played an excellent first period of hockey, putting in four goals on the way to a 9-2 victory.
â€œSaturday was just the opposite,â€ said Ceglarski â€œEverything that wasnâ€™t going in on Friday was going in on Saturday. The first period of play may have been the best period of hockey we have played in the last five years. Our speed was very noticeable. Our passes were on. Our breakouts were good. And we seemed to dictate play for the majority of that period.â€
The difference between Friday and Saturday night wasnâ€™t as much about the coaches making adjustments as it was about the players executing the game plan to perfection.
â€œEverybody said â€˜you made some great adjustments on Saturdayâ€™,â€ said Ceglarski. â€œIâ€™m not sure I adjusted anything. Our lineup stayed the same. We had a five minute meeting before the game and we knew we needed to get some traffic in front of the net and bury our chances.â€
Elmira is now on a seven game unbeaten streak, going back to the first week of January when the Soaring Eagles lost to Gustavus Adolphus in the opening round of the Times-Argus tournament. During that stretch, the Elmira defense has been rock solid, limiting their opponents to only 11 total goals.
â€œOur overall team defense has become much better over the last couple of weeks since break,â€ said Ceglarski. â€œThey are limiting shots very well.â€
With the three point weekend, Elmira has started to separate itself just a bit from the pack at the top of the ECAC West. The Soaring Eagles now have a three point lead over Hobart and Neumann, who are tied for second place.
â€œWeâ€™re playing much better now than we were in the beginning of the year,â€ said Ceglarski. â€œOur first year players have really stepped up and are playing extremely well. That cushion in the standings only lasts until we head down to Manhattanville. I donâ€™t want to sound too clichÃ©-ish, but anybody can beat anyone else on any given night.â€
Game of the Week
This weekend features a pair of key series in the league. Hobart travels down the Thruway to Utica for a pair of games at the Aud; the second place Statesmen are looking to close the gap on league leading Elmira.
Meanwhile, the Pioneers find themselves in fifth place without a win against any of the other teams vying for the playoffs. Utica desperately needs at least a split this weekend to stay in the hunt for a home playoff game.
â€œOur backs are against the wall,â€ said Uticaâ€™s Heenan. â€œThis coming weekend is huge, or we are buried in fifth place. We donâ€™t want to play in the play-in game. Everything is going to be tight checking with a ton on the line. It is classic ECAC West hockey. Hobart is in the same predicament and they want the win.â€
The other big series this weekend is Elmira at Manhattanville. Thanks to a well-timed timeout and clutch play, the Valiants stole a game at Elmira back in early December with a 5-4 overtime victory.
The Soaring Eagles have been chewing on that loss ever since and want nothing more than to return the favor at Manhattanville this weekend.
â€œWe gave away a game against them earlier in the year,â€ said Ceglarski. â€œWe had a lead going into the last two minutes. They called a great timeout, pulled the goalie and scored. And then we made a bad mistake in overtime. Weâ€™re excited for the rematch. I donâ€™t anticipate any blowouts. They have a very good defensive scheme and play the trap like no other team in college hockey, and weâ€™ll have to see how to break that.â€