Geneseo’s Mitch Stephens came into Saturday with a nation-leading six shorthanded goals. He increased that number to seven with what may be the most important shorthanded goal in Geneseo history: the game winner at 13:36 of the third period to save Geneseo from elimination and force Game 3 in the SUNYAC championship series.
The 4-3 win for the Ice Knights did not come easy. They had to come back from 1-0 and 3-1 deficits before Stephens stunned Plattsburgh with his goal.
“We were coming out shorthanded,” Stephens said. “We’ve scored quite a bit of shorthanded goals all year so we were kind of thinking about it the whole time. If we got a chance maybe cheat a little bit that way. A tie didn’t do any good for us tonight.”
Plattsburgh was trying to transition the play at center ice when Steve Sankey whacked at the puck with his stick. It came loose, and Stephens was in the right place at the right time. He had already been beaten on the initial play, but since the puck bounced back in his direction, he was behind the Plattsburgh defenders.
“It was just laying out there and I started skating for it,” he said.
He picked up the puck and went in on a breakaway. Stephens got Craig Neilson to make the first move, skated around him, and easily put the puck into the net, setting off a frenzied celebration by the team and capacity crowd.
What makes Stephens so dangerous shorthanded?
“I don’t know,” he conceded. “I didn’t score that many last year. Tonight, I didn’t do a whole lot to get the breakaway. It’s been chances like that all year. I think it’s a lot of luck.”
Whether the final goal was luck or not, Geneseo had to work for this win.
The key opportunity for Geneseo in the first period nearly backfired. Plattsburgh’s Casey Smith checked Stephens from behind into the boards and was called for a five-minute major and automatic game misconduct with just under five minutes left in the period.
However, Geneseo squandered two minutes of the power play when Brett Bestwick was called for slashing on a Plattsburgh shorthanded attempt. During that four-on-four, Plattsburgh got the first goal of the game.
Geneseo attempted to break quickly out of the zone only to have the puck stolen at center ice by Bryan North, who immediately fed Mike Thomson at the blueline. Just as quickly as Geneseo tried to break out, Plattsburgh had a two-on-one back the other way.
Thomson skated the puck down the left side before feeding Deryk Whitehead on the right side. Whitehead’s initial shot was stopped by Derek Jokic, but he put in his own rebound.
Geneseo recovered to finally take advantage of the major after Bestwick returned to the ice.
Nick Onody passed the puck out to the blueline to Steve Sankey, who initially wound up to slap a one-timer. However, he changed his mind, and instead skated the puck into the slot area. Plattsburgh nearly stole it, turning Sankey around. Sankey then fired a beautiful high backhander through a screen that Neilson lost sight of with 16 seconds left in the period.
Plattsburgh came out flying at the start of the second period, scoring twice in the first 1:40.
“We just came out ready to play in that period,” Plattsburgh coach Bob Emery said.
Riley Hill got things going quickly with a spectacular individual effort, a rush reminiscent of Bobby Orr. He skated the puck end to end, deking and dancing around every Geneseo player who tried to stand in his way. By the time he was near the goal, he had beaten every opposing player on the ice and was alone against the goalie. That last challenge was easily dispensed with as Hill faked right, went left around the goalie and deposited the puck into the open part of the net.
Just 42 seconds into the period, Plattsburgh had the lead. A minute later, the Cardinals extended that lead.
North shot from the right side boards, a harmless shot that would have gone wide. However, it deflected sharply off a Geneseo skate, and the sudden change of direction caught Jokic off-guard, as it went by him on the left side.
Considering how well Plattsburgh has played with the lead throughout the playoffs, the game could have been virtually over despite still having nearly two whole periods of hockey to play.
“The first minute and forty, Plattsburgh came out a little more focused and a little more ready than us,” Geneseo coach Jason Lammers said. “The guys did a great job rebounding. In the past we’ve called a time out, but at that point I felt we could come back. The guys were playing well and excited, and I didn’t want to stop that flow. The guys answered the bell and did a great job of responding when they could have packed it in. Kudos to them.”
The Ice Knights responded with a power-play goal at 15:00. Dan Schofield took a high shot from the right side on a difficult angle, but banked it off the near crossbar and into the net.
“The thing that killed us was once they got the second goal at the end of the second,” Emery said. “They carried that momentum into the third. You don’t like to give up a goal at the end of the period. We wanted to carry a two-goal lead going into the third period.”
“That was a big goal,” Lammers said. “It makes the game reachable at that point. Instead of being down two, you are down one and that was a huge, huge goal.”
Since the series is first-to-three-points, a tie was no good to Geneseo, which therefore needed to score twice in the third period.
Kris Heeres got the first one at 8:22, again on the power play. He initially deflected a shot from the point by Matt English that hit Neilson in the facemask. Heeres then put in the rebound.
Plattsburgh called time out, and its defense tightened up. Then came what looked to be a key power play for Plattsburgh, but instead turned into a key shorthanded goal for Geneseo.
The Ice Knights scored three power-play goals, as special teams were their forte Saturday.
“I didn’t feel that we changed a whole lot,” Lammers said of the power-play success. “I thought the guys did a better job getting pucks to the net. It was more of an attitude on our part that we were a lot more focused. I thought on Friday night they did a good job pressuring us, and we weren’t able to respond where tonight when they pressured we were ready for that.”
“We were the team that was better on special teams last night when we won,” Emery said. “They were the team that was better on special teams tonight.”
Jokic made 23 saves for the win while Neilson stopped 30 shots.
The teams have a short turnaround this time, as the deciding game is Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. How will the coaches prepare for this crucial contest?
“The strategy is we have to put this one behind us,” Emery said. “We’re a pretty conditioned team. Hopefully, that will show tomorrow.”
“To be honest, that isn’t something I thought about yet,” Lammers said. “We are going to do a lot of thinking about that here tonight. We want the guys to get some water in them, get some good food, and get home and get to bed. We’ll come up with something on the game plan. We just wanted to win this one.”