Even during trying ’18-19 season, resilient Army West Point team has ‘a belief factor’

The visiting Army West Point Black Knights defeated the Bentley University Falcons 5-1 on Friday, February 16, 2018, in the first game in the new Bentley Arena in Waltham, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Zach Evancho sits second in Army West Point scoring with 10 goals and 26 points in 30 games (photo: Melissa Wade).

The last month of the college hockey season is a special type of frenetic.

Each game feels like a marathon, but it feels like a time warp when the clock starts running out. There’s a sense of urgency that contrasts with the same patience, both intertwining and running concurrently.

That feeling went to full display last week when Army West Point hosted Mercyhurst. The Black Knights hadn’t won an official game since their last conference win at the end of November, and their lone victory in 2019 came in a 5-2 win over Canada’s Royal Military College, a game of ultimate importance to the program but of no statistical value within the NCAA.

Army learned it had to have patience in order to find the right formula for victory. That formula ultimately came to the team, though, when its back was against the proverbial wall this past weekend against Mercyhurst. The Lakers scored on Saturday with two minutes remaining in the third period to take a 3-2 lead despite over 40 shots by the Black Knight offense.

“We had hit the post in overtime with two seconds left (in a 1-1 tie on Friday night),” Army coach Brian Riley said. “When you think about that, you’re thinking, ‘Here we go again’ on Saturday night.”

It took two 20-second segments, though, to entirely change that tune.

First, Army’s offense positioned itself to pull goalie Matt Penta. The extra-attacker situation lasted for the second segment, and it ended with Zach Evancho’s tenth goal of the season, sending the game to overtime, where Dalton MacAfee scored with two seconds remaining to lift Army to its first victory in 2019.

“Through this whole stretch that we’ve had, there’s been a belief factor,” Riley said. “It’s the result of our captains and our seniors. I haven’t walked into the locker room on a Monday to start a new week thinking that these guys don’t believe they’re a good team. They know they’re a good team. It made (the weekend) exciting.”

It also sent a message that one of the conference’s fiercest teams isn’t going away, though it could be argued that it never really left. The Black Knights had seven losses since the win over Canisius by two or less goals. The RIT series watched them score to tie the game after two but suffer a 4-2 defeat, then score again late in the second game before giving up an empty net goal. It was similar to the game against Brown at Dartmouth’s Ledyard Bank Classic; Brendan Soucie scored to tie the game in the third, but the Black Knights surrendered a goal and an empty-netter in a two-goal loss.

“We’ve felt that we have played that we have played well in the games that we had to,” Riley said. “We just hadn’t gotten any points. From a conference standpoint, we felt like we played well but it wasn’t translating into wins. Hopefully this last weekend gives us a little more confidence; I anticipate that our guys will come out really hard these last two weekends.”

Part of that confidence stemmed from a change in net. Junior Matt Penta made his first two official starts after earning the exhibition victory against RMC earlier this season, and the gamble paid off for the coaching staff. He earned the 1-0-1 weekend with exactly 50 saves.

“We were trying to figure out a way to win a hockey game,” Riley said. “I’m not blaming the goalies, but Matt hadn’t had an opportunity. He played against RMC, which is a huge game for us, and he played very well. We decided (to change) at the beginning of the week, and we told him on Monday that he was going (to play) on Friday against Mercyhurst. I know that our guys were excited to play in front of him. He’s a great kid who works extremely hard, and he showed that he has that ability to come in and play well.”

It stabilizes Army at a time when the team still has a chance to make a run at the Atlantic Hockey standings. The three-point weekend was the result of approximately 44 seconds of game time, but reverberated through the entire Atlantic Hockey season. Had Army not rung the post in overtime, it would have had a four-point weekend. Conversely, a turnover on an empty net or a missed shot in both the third period or overtime would have shifted the Black Knights’ potential positioning.

A one-point weekend would have left the team tied with Robert Morris and Holy Cross for the final home ice playoff spot in the first round. Each team has four games left, but with potential head-to-head tiebreakers muddied, league wins would become critical. Instead, Army West Point remained two points ahead of both teams and in position to potentially clinch a home ice spot this weekend when the Crusaders play a home-and-home with Bentley and the Colonials head to RIT.

It also kept Army squarely in the hunt for a better seed, putting additional pressure on both Niagara and Mercyhurst, and it gives the Black Knights an outside shot at a first round bye with a five-point deficit to Sacred Heart, their opponent this weekend.

Mercyhurst, meanwhile, would have jumped Sacred Heart for fifth place and tied Air Force and RIT for third. The Lakers own the head-to-head tiebreaker over RIT but play at home against the Falcons this weekend, meaning this weekend could have turned into a potential series for third place in the league. Instead, the Lakers continue to look up at the Pioneers and are five points back of second place Bentley.

In a year where there’s an unlikely separation in the Atlantic Hockey standings, 42 seconds determined all of that – and set the table for so much more. For Army, it means capitalizing this weekend when it plays Sacred Heart in its final home-and-home of the season. It also means taking care of business in the final weekend of the season against Bentley, though that will likely feel like a century away as it does a heartbeat.

“(We play) against two of the hottest teams in the league (down the stretch),” Riley said. “That’s just going to force you to elevate your game. Everyone likes to play at home, so for us to have three out of four at home is a good thing. We have to try and take advantage of that.

“Every year, the last few weekends, you know you can move spots. This year, I think more than any year, there’s some separation but it’s the closest the league has been from a talent standpoint. You could turn it upside down from one through 11. These playoffs are going to be absolutely crazy. We say it every year, but anything can happen.”