We all knew it was going to happen.
After five games last year, including an epic three-game series, and four games this year, including a couple of epic one-goal games, there was virtually no way that the Bentley-Sacred Heart series wasn’t destined for three games. There also was no way, after the teams split the first two games, that the third game wouldn’t turn into an epic match for the ages.
Sure enough, we were all proven correct.
Despite two three-goal scores, the first two games remained essentially one-goal games throughout the bulk of their time. On Friday, Bentley led 1-0 after the first period but relinquished two goals early on before Sacred Heart hit a late strike and an empty net goal to earn a 4-1 decision. On Saturday, it was the other way around, with a 2-2 games turning into a 3-2 Bentley lead before late goal and an empty net strike turned it into a 5-2 result.
On Sunday, they just kept playing.
Jordan Minello gave the Pioneers an early 1-0, putting a shooter’s shot inside the upper corner post on goaltender Jayson Argue with about seven minutes remaining. It was matched by Bentley’s Max French, who one-timed a pass from Ryner Gorowsky past Brett Magnus to tie the game on a shorthanded bid with under 30 seconds left.
In the second, Matt Riggleman scored, giving Bentley a 2-1 lead. It held up until seven minutes and change remained in the third. Ruslan Rukhmatov slid one past Argue, tying the game at 2-2. Late in the period, there became an air of inevitability. The game and the series, which was 3-3 on the season, was going to extra hockey.
What transpired next is what makes hockey the greatest sport in the land.
The teams traded 17 shots in the first overtime, with Sacred Heart generating much of the offense. Argue made three unbelievable saves, including one where there was a wide open goal mouth and he just guessed correct with his glove on the left side moving across the crease. Magnus responded when called upon, and for 20 full minutes, the best period of hockey played all season long turned the series into something that just wouldn’t end – and something that shouldn’t have.
In the second overtime, Gorowsky ended the game before anything had a chance to get going. Bentley sprung him for a breakaway with a pass from Jonathan Desbiens, and Gorowsky deked one past Magnus to send the Falcons to Colorado for a date with Air Force in the AHC Quarterfinals.
The game had everything and lived up to its billing. The goaltenders played 80-plus minutes of stellar hockey, and the teams laid everything humanly possible out on the ice. It was a series Sacred Heart didn’t deserve to lose, and it’s a series that ended with Bentley finishing on top.
There is a worthy discussion piece at the end, centering around if the referee staff missed a call on the final play. On the play, SHU defenseman Mitch Nylen took a borderline hit that helped spring the scoring opportunity. The whistles went away for the bulk of the late game, save for a Mike Crocock tripping call early in the first overtime.
In the end, though, this series will best be remembered for a wild first overtime. Very rarely can everyone watch a series and say that both teams deserved to win. Part of the heartbreaking nature of the postseason is that someone has to lose. It was the series everyone predicted would go the way that it went, yet it typified what makes the Atlantic Hockey postseason so unpredictable.
The Little Engine That Did
The regular season is probably something the Niagara Purple Eagles would like to forget. Having lost nearly 30 games, the standings sealed them into 12th earlier than most seeds as they battled injury and bad puck luck.
But there’s a saying that the postseason is a chance at second life. In their second life, the Purple Eagles seized the moment, exemplifying a carpe diem attitude in eliminating the two-time defending AHC champion RIT Tigers in the Polisseni Center.
In Friday’s game, RIT held a 4-2 lead halfway through the third but gave up a shorthanded goal to Vinny Muto with about four minutes to go. That set up the last minute of play, where Johnny Curran scored with 57 seconds left to tie the game and threaten to send it to overtime.
It never got there. Sam Rennaker scored shorthanded after he had the primary assist on Curran’s goal, with 11 seconds left, to give the Purps a stunning upset in Game 1.
After RIT rallied to tie the series on Saturday, Niagara jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in the first four minutes of Sunday’s game. Though Jordan Peacock would halve the lead with a goal in the second, the Purple Eagles put two in the RIT net to take a 4-1 decision and advance them to the second round.
Perhaps more interesting is that Niagara all of a sudden becomes an intriguing choice for a run at Rochester. Having knocked out the Tigers, they now travel literally across town, heading from Niagara Falls to Buffalo to take on top-seeded Canisius in the quarterfinals. In a rivalry series, expect the unexpected, and the Battle of the Bridge now heads to the postseason for what is an interesting and compelling matchup.
The offseason in the Riley household is about to get interesting.
Mercyhurst polished off AIC in two games, including a 5-0 decision on Saturday, to advance to the second round. When Niagara eliminated RIT, it meant the Lakers were the best remaining seed to come out of the first round. It also meant they would head to West Point to take on Army West Point in the quarterfinals.
That means Brendan and Jack Riley head on the road, to where they grew up watching their grandfather, uncle, and father behind the bench, for a playoff series one week after celebrating the 57th anniversary of the Forgotten Miracle – USA’s gold medal at Squaw Valley in the 1960 Olympics, the only other gold medal besides the 1980 team.
You really can’t write a better script. Army West Point’s been a top team for most of the season, and this is the first quarterfinals matchup in West Point in years. But it comes against a team that has been to the mountaintop, that’s been on the road and succeeded in the playoffs, and has a coach who seemingly just knows how to win.
As a junior, Jack Riley’s sustained success against his dad, but this year, the teams split at Tate Rink. That loss to the Lakers is also just one of three the cadets sustained at home in conference play all year. At various points this year, the Black Knights have gone on long stretches of tears, and they have arguably the best goalie in the conference, if not the nation, in Parker Gahagen. It’s safe to say Gahagen is getting a solid scouting report on both Jack and his younger brother.